Often overlooked by travelers for neighboring Costa Rica, Nicaragua is becoming increasingly popular for travelers looking to break off the tourist trail and stretch their budget further. Nicaragua’s natural wonders of volcanic landscapes, superb beaches, and dense forest are complemented by some of the finest colonial architecture in Central America, charming towns, and welcoming locals. Adventure seekers, beach bums, and design buffs alike have plenty of options to fill any itinerary. Take a look at our eight top cities, towns, and regions for prospective travelers looking to explore Nicaragua before word gets out.
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Isla de Ometepe
Located in Nicaragua’s interior lake, Lago Cocibolca (also referred to as Lake Nicaragua in English), the figure-eight-shaped island of Ometepe is dominated by the Concepción and Maderas volcanoes. These opposing volcanoes are the main draw to this freshwater island, with distinctly different hiking opportunities. Concepción is still active and the taller of the two at 5,282 feet. The upper portion of Concepción lacks vegetation, granting excellent views, but also exposing hikers to the intense Nicaraguan sun for hours. On the other hand, Maderas is dormant and is covered in thick forest up to its 4,573-foot peak. Maderas’s crater contains a small lagoon, which can be reached via a four-hour hike from the base of the volcano. It’s best to hike Maderas in the dry season, as the path becomes incredibly muddy during the rainy season. Staying at the welcoming Totoco Eco-Lodge will shed two kilometers off the round-trip hike, as it’s perched up on the dormant volcano’s slopes. Don’t be surprised if Totoco’s resident dog, Comicha, accompanies you on the whole journey. It’s hard to beat the view of Concepción from Totoco’s infinity pool.
There’s plenty more to do on Ometepe beyond the impressive and strenuous volcano hikes. Chaco Verde Reserve is rich in wildlife, including various monkey species, which visitors are likely to spot while kayaking, swimming, or hiking. The stunning San Ramon waterfall requires a steep hike, but is a quick climb compared to Maderas and Concepción. A more leisurely outing to Ojo de Agua, a natural spring-fed pool from an underground river, offers a chance to relax and cool off after some vigorous activity. Portions of Ometepe have yet to be paved, so renting an ATV or motorbike if you’re an experienced driver is an excellent way to explore these not only these sites, but also the petroglyphs at Balgue and various small beaches dotting the island.
The two far-flung islands Big Corn and Little Corn are well worth the effort to reach them. These islands were originally a British colony, and the local largely Afro-Caribbean culture has more commonalities with other Caribbean islands than parts of mainland Nicaragua. Big Corn is the port of entry for anyone traveling by conventional means. La Costeña Airlines shuttles passengers between Managua and Big Corn three times a day. This limits tourist traffic to the roughly 120 passengers who arrive daily. Tourism on Big Corn is still in its infancy, with accommodation and infrastructure on the rustic side. However, this 3.9 square-mile island offers diving, uncrowded beaches, fishing, and walkways through the jungle, not to mention an incredibly friendly local community.
Even at a mere 1.1 square-miles, Little Corn is still far from crowded. To reach Little Corn, a twice daily Panga boat takes up to 45 passengers on the 30-minute journey, meaning that getting a spot on the boat can become unfortunately competitive since tickets cannot be purchased in advance. Upon arrival, Little Corn’s beaches and laid-back atmosphere will help shed any travel stress. The whole island is easily walkable due to its size and that the beaches are open to everyone. Aside from beachcombing, activities include diving with one of the two dive operators, offshore snorkeling, and eating and drinking at a handful of bars and restaurants. Most of the nightlife is clustered around the harbor, but it’s worth seeking out the Lighthouse for views of the island from Little Corn’s only hilltop. Yemaya, located on the north side, claims the fanciest accommodation, but consider Little Corn Island Beach & Bungalow for affordable comfort just yards from the beach.
Granada’s charming center of pastel-hued colonial buildings is the most touristic locale in Nicaragua. Western expat–owned restaurants and boutique hotels now dominate the cobble-stoned streets, and with affordable real estate, this trend is expected to continue. Many have differing views on these developments, but there is strong consensus that Granada’s beautiful city center merits a visit. The Our Lady of the Assumption Cathedral, which is often just referred to as “The Cathedral” is a neoclassical splendor and Granada’s icon. For one U.S. dollar, visitors can climb to the top of the bell tower for views of the city. There are a handful of other churches, the Central Park, and museums such as Mi Museo’s pre-Columbian ceramics and the ChocoMuseo’s make-your-own-chocolate workshop to fill a day or two. Just outside of town, the islands of Lake Nicaragua can be explored by boat tour or kayak. Granada also makes for a convenient location to explore the region, including the crater lake at Laguna de Apoyo, Mombacho volcano, and Masaya volcano.
A Boutique Hotel Pick:
Once the scene of revolution and conflict, Nicaragua’s second most populous city is now known for its liberalism, art, and colonial architecture. Though its streets may not be as orderly and preserved as Granada's, León still boasts some architectural gems, notably the León Cathedral, which is the largest cathedral in Central America. The Centro de Arte Fundación Otiz Gurdián is housed in a pristine colonial building and features a collection of works by Central American artists, and its proceeds go to a program supporting low-income women with breast cancer. The art scene is not limited to formal museums, with expressive and political murals through the city streets. A variety of other activities in León contribute to noble causes, including La Isla Foundation's support for ending kidney disease among sugarcane workers and communities through proceeds from Spanish language, yoga, and salsa classes. Another organization, SONATI, uses profits from l-Treks and volcano boarding trips to the Maribios volcanic chain to support environmental education projects. With numerous nearby volcanoes and the Pacific only 30 minutes away, there’s plenty to occupy any traveler for days, if not weeks, in León.
San Juan del Sur
This Pacific fishing village has emerged into a quite a surfing and nightlife hub. It still retains some of its village charm, though, with fishing boats bobbing in the harbor and bright homes of every shade. Superb views of San Juan del Sur’s harbor can be found by hiking 20 minutes up to the Christ of the Mercy statue. However, the most pristine beaches lie north and south of San Juan’s harbor. To the north, Playa Maderas can be reached by water taxi or car. Maderas is prime for surfing, with several schools and rental outfitters. Other nearby beaches worth a day trip include picturesque Playa Marsella to the north and Playa Hermosa and Tamarindo to the south. High prices and tourism development make San Juan del Sur largely a Western-culture enclave, but it’s great for a dose of surf and sand between stops in Nicaragua.
A Beachfront Hotel Pick:
Considering that Managua is Nicaragua’s capital and largest city, it's rather strange that it hardly registers on many travelers’ radars. Home to over a million of Nicaragua’s 6.15 million people, there are some struggles with overcrowding: Managua is plagued by traffic and issues with trash collection. If you’re willing to look past the grit and chaos, though, you'll gain further exposure to Nicaragua’ culture and visit some of its lesser known attractions. Like in León, there is plenty of street art to be found on Managua’s tree-lined streets. The empty shell of Managua’s Antigua Cathedral, which was heavily damaged by a 1972 earthquake, has yet to be restored, but stands picturesquely in the city center. For a dose of living culture, head to the recently revamped Puerto Salvador Allende lakefront area for a range of dining options, followed by an evening of live folk music at La Casa de los Mejía Godoy.
A Luxury Hotel Pick:
Laguna de Apoyo
Though Laguna de Apoyo can be reached by car in 30 minutes from Granada, this tranquil crater lake is a destination in its own right. The crater is contained within a nature reserve, but lax regulation has allowed a handful of hotels and properties lining the shores of this 650-foot deep, 200-century-old crater. Presently, the development is still on the smaller side, and hopefully it stays that way. Underwater fumaroles provide healing minerals and keep the temperature temperate, making this forest-shrouded lake a perfect destination for relaxation. Most accommodation provide kayaks and inner tubes which are perfect for exploring the 13.51 square mile-lake or simply bobbing with a Toña beer in hand. For those visiting just for the day, a $7 US fee grants access to the waterfront and all its amenities. Another perk of staying in Laguna de Apoyo is its proximity to Masaya, which is home to a renowned craft market and an active volcano of the same name.
A Boutique Hotel Pick in Granada:
Nicaragua’s third largest city, Esteli, is gaining attention from travelers for its authenticity and location in the relatively temperate north central highlands. The surrounding region produces coffee and serves as an agricultural hub -- there's a substantial produce market in downtown Esteli. The city is also home to a sizable university population, giving the city a vibrant cultural scene. Outside of town, impressive sustainable tourism efforts at the Nature Reserve Miraflor (a two-hour drive from Esteli) include the provision of cabins and homestays with local families, visits to local farms, and other outdoor activities to explore the rich flora and fauna. From the highlands to mountains, visitors will make their way through a variety of ecosystems, including cloud forests. Closer to Esteli center, Tisey Estanzuela Natural Reserve encompasses mountainous forests and an impressive waterfall.
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