Nicaragua: A Cheap, Easy, and Epic 10-day Itinerary
Updated: Mar 8
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If you’re looking for a post to break down the nitty gritty of every place to stay and food item to eat, this is not it. If you’re looking for the bare essentials, you’ve come to the right place. This is my quick and dirty skinny on what you need to know to have a cheap, easy, and epic adventure in Nicaragua. For some tips on how to infuse more adventure into all of your trips, check out 13 Ways to Turn Your Vacation into a True Adventure.
I’d like to first introduce what I absolutely LOVE about this country. I have traveled pretty extensively in Central and South America, and I adore the unique aspects of every place I’ve been. In comparison to its neighbors, here is what I love about Nicaragua:
1. It’s cheap and easy. It’s an affordable country to visit and it’s very easy to get around. We hopped from public bus to public bus and the locals at the bus stations seemed to always be right there to whisk us away to find what we were looking for. At first I thought they were trying to sell us on a specific bus or trying to get a tip, but no. People were just around offering a helping hand, making sure we didn’t miss our bus!
2. Distances are not vast. Unlike many other Latin American destinations where travel through the mountainous terrain can be nail-biting and obscenely long, the main tourist destinations are not so far away from one another. Each of the places I discuss here are all located along the western strip of the country. If you wanted to venture off the beaten path further inland or to the Corn Islands (which I didn’t see), the country becomes immense. If you are on a time-crunch, each of the stops I mention here are all you need to have an amazing trip.
3. The local people are very friendly (at least that was my experience).
4. English is widely spoken and the culture is pretty Americanized. Depending on your perspective, this can be good and bad. For ease of travel, it is nice. For authenticity, it is lacking. I would say most people don’t speak fluent English like you might find in Europe, but they know enough to communicate as they need. Speaking Spanish definitely helps, but I could have traveled relatively easily without it.
5. Distinctiveness of the locations. Each stop I made along the journey felt like a new world. Each location, just hours away from one another, was so vastly different from the last; I felt like I visited several countries in one short trip.
I wish I had more time to explore this beautiful country, but here are the stops you just can't miss if your time is tight!
San Juan Del Sur: If you want sun, surf, a chill vibe, and a fun party scene, look no further than San Juan del Sur. You must:
Hike up to the Christ of Mercy Statue
Take surf lessons
Take a shuttle or rent a moped or motorcycle to nearby beaches
Consider being there for Sunday Funday (we did not do this but wish we did).
Ometepe Island: This is a massive island in Lake Nicaragua centered around two giant volcanoes. You can take a public ferry to get there. There is hiking, swimming, kayaking, horseback riding, biking, and so much more. We were there for a short while. We stayed on a finca in Mérida, a more remote part of the island, and were able to take a horseback riding tour right from the finca. It was absolutely gorgeous. If you are looking to get off the beaten path, I suggest something like this. Don’t be surprised to get caught in a traffic jam of cows and see random horses and pigs wandering around the island. You really feel like you’re in another world here.
If you are looking for more action, stay in (still pretty rural) Santa Cruz. If you’re looking to party and don’t mind the bugs, Little Morgan’s is a unique experience that’s hard to put into words. The dorms are made to look like tree houses and it’s right on the lake with winding, sandy paths, pool tables, weird drinking rules, and a hippie vibe. Very interesting. You must:
Visit Zopilote for wood-fired pizza, hand-crafted chocolate spirits, and fire dancers. It’s a backpacker’s haven, and has a vibe like nothing you’ve ever seen before (you should stay in Santa Cruz to go there, or have your own transportation). It's walking distance from Little Morgan's. The owner of the finca we were staying at (a German guy), charged us to have one of his farm-hands drive us there. We ended up hitching a ride back the next morning.
Rent bicycles or motorized bikes to tour around the island. We rented dilapidated bicycles from a local 12 year old boy who basically just rounded them up from his neighbors. We rode from Mérida to Ojo de Agua. It was a really long ride on bikes that barely worked but that also made for a hilarious adventure. You can upgrade this experience by renting motorized scooters or bikes for the duration of your stay on the island. There’s really no taxis on this part of the island, but there’s a public bus that can take you around if you have the time. Bikes or scooters would allow you to see so much more. You’ll have to do your research about where to rent them.
Go for a hike either by foot or by horse. With all the mud, we were glad we took horses.
Swim at Ojo de Agua, a popular spot for locals and tourists alike, with crystal blue/green waters.
Granada: This is an attractive colonial city with colorful buildings lining cobblestone streets, beautiful churches, and plenty of nice places to stay. We only spent one night here but there was a vibrant scene with street dancers and plenty of shops and restaurants. We just walked around and enjoyed. It was more of a pit stop for us. Many people were taking tours by horse and carriage. I would have loved to tour around the Islets of Granada but we did not have time.
León: León is a vibrant, colonial, college town; less polished and a little more edgy than it’s Granada counterpart. I loved the spirit of this city. It is a jumping off point for volcano-boarding and there are beautiful beaches nearby. You must:
Go Volcano Boarding. We used Big Foot Hostel and Volcano Boarding which offered a free shuttle with your purchase to Playa Las Peñitas. There are other outfitters but these guys were great. They hype you up, give you some nice swag, pile you into an open air bus/jeep, get the music pumping, and guide you up the volcano where you can choose to pay someone to carry your board up (it’s surprisingly hard to maneuver with the wind), or carry it yourself. They suit you up in orange jumpsuits and send you down the face of the active volcano. No big deal! They record your speed to see who is the fastest for the day. I know I was NOT trying to break any records. I had my heels dug so hard into the volcanic rock to slow myself down, I thought they were going to start creating molten lava!
Visit the nearby beach (Las Peñitas). The waves were a lot of fun and there’s some chill places to grab a drink. Big Foot has a free shuttle there if you volcano board with them.
Visit the Cathedral of León. At certain times you can get up on the impressive white-washed roof and get a view of the city. Unfortunately, we missed it but wish we had gone. There’s certain hours you have to catch it.
We loved staying at ViaVia León. Such a fun vibe with a bar and restaurant up front and sometimes live bands at night.
Managua: At first glance, Managua seems to be a miss, but we had a local taking us around. We were there on New Year’s Eve when streets were lined with life size elaborate Christmas dioramas. The waterfront was crawling with local families, festively lit up, and fun to explore. We even caught a fireworks display from the street of our hostel. It was beautiful to walk around that area at night.
With political unrest in recent years, you will want to research before deciding whether to visit or not. A friend of mine who lives in San Juan del Sur reports things are perfectly fine there. You will have to balance the hype about the dangers with the reality of the risks. U.S. Department of State is a good place to start.
Nicaragua is on the top of the list for countries I’d like to visit again.