With both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea coasts, Nicaragua is best known for its dramatic landscape of lakes, volcanoes, and beaches. A small country located in the heart of Central America, it thrives off of tourism, coffee, sugar, and rum, specifically the world-famous Flor de Caña rum that dates back to 1890.
The lavish tropical climate makes it a popular destination for travelers looking to escape the cold of winter. The population of 6.6 million people (as of 2020) is multiethnic with influence from indigenous, Latin, and foreign cultures. The people are known to be friendly and eager to share their culture with visitors.
Tuani – Welcome to Nicaragua!
Managua is the capital of Nicaragua and rests inland from the Pacific Coast. While the capital is not on the ocean, it’s on the shores of Lake Managua and is close to Lake Nicaragua. Managua is a major hub as it has the country’s largest airport and is often the first stop for tourists before they head to other cities within the country.
- Culture and Language
- Spending Budget
- How to Get Around
- Top Cities to Visit
- Points of Interest
Culture and Language
The culture of Nicaragua is often split by area. While the country rests within Latin America and does have many Latin influences, you’ll find that the cultures between the two coasts are vastly different.
The West Coast of Nicaragua was colonized by the Spanish and has a culture that reflects the language, customs, and architecture of Spain.
The East Coast of the country has an entirely different culture that draws its influence from the Afro-Caribbean community. The British once had control of the area and you’ll find that English is more commonly spoken, alongside Spanish, indigenous, and Creole-based languages.
With the mix of Spanish and Caribbean cultures, people will often comment that traveling to each coast is like visiting a whole new country.
However, Spanish is spoken throughout the country as the official language. If you’re traveling the West Coast, you’ll likely only encounter the Spanish language. Meanwhile, if you’re venturing to the East Coast, you might hear Creole, Spanish, and English.
The Indigenous language is mostly encountered on the East Coast but not in the general population. The indigenous people live in small communities and are separated from the mestizo population that lives in the rest of Nicaragua.
Many people are eager to visit Nicaragua because it’s an affordable country and backpacker-friendly. For travelers with limited budgets, Nicaragua is paradise. But it’s important to consider your spending budget when you’re planning your trip and you might be curious to know what exactly “affordable” is in Nicaragua.
Tourism is a major means of economic gain for Nicaragua, but that doesn’t mean that it’s an expensive country to visit. Many travelers will comment on how Nicaragua is better than Costa Rica because it’s not overly expensive. However, there are still significant portions of your budget that you’ll have to consider, and your plane ticket will be the most expensive purchase.
If you’re traveling from Los Angeles to Managua, you’ll find that most plane ticket prices will range anywhere from the mid to high hundreds. The large difference is dependent on when you travel to Nicaragua and how far ahead you book your flight.
In the tourist off-season, plane tickets can be bought for an extremely affordable price, if you’re willing to experience living in the rain. However, during the peak tourist season plane tickets can easily climb in price.
The most affordable plane tickets fly in and out of Los Angeles, but if you aren’t living in LA, the cost of a plane ticket will drastically increase. Due to political events, many airlines have reduced service to Managua, which only makes plane tickets more expensive.
While the plane ticket is costly, you can save money with affordable accommodation. Hostels are abundant in the country and there are many that have excellent ratings and are affordable. In Managua, a clean hostel can cost a few dollars per person while a chain hotel will be exceedingly more in comparison.
There are many options for accommodations in Nicaragua and you’ll find both affordable and luxury locations or services. Be aware that luxury resorts like Mukul, can cost hundreds per night.
Airbnb is also popular in Nicaragua for travelers who are coming in groups or would like private accommodations. There are plenty of Airbnb listings throughout the country for apartments and houses. Just be aware that larger houses located in popular areas like San Juan Del Sur will cost hundreds per night.
While having a place to sleep is important, you’ll also need to portion food, drink, and entertainment into your budget. Nicaragua has a unique cuisine that has a mix of influences from indigenous, Spanish, and Creole cultures.
Gallo pinto is the most well-known mix of rice and beans that can be served with any meal. Nacatamal is famous throughout the country and is a hearty tamale filled with pork, potatoes, tomatoes, rice, onion, peppers, and chilis.
Vigorón is a dish that uses a yucca base with chicharron and a salad of cabbage and tomato. Tres leches cake is a popular dessert of condensed milk, evaporated milk, and whipped cream. However, simple is better and many Nicaragüenses are happy with pan pico and coffee.
Dining Out and Entertainment
While there are plenty of Nicaraguan dishes to try, you might also be interested in the nightlife and excursions. There are many bars located throughout the country, but you’ll find the most popular are located in tourist areas like San Juan Del Sur. Iguana Bar is located on the beach in San Juan Del Sur and has been a local staple for many years.
Toña is the local beer and one bottle costs a few dollars. If nightlife isn’t your thing, you’ll also find that there are plenty of excursions you can book. Lake Nicaragua is home to many small islands, located outside of Granada where tourists are happy to take a boat cruise.
In the north, you can slide down the Cerro Negro Volcano or go horseback riding on Ometepe Island. The cost of excursions will be an additional part of your spending budget that you’ll have to consider. Most excursions with a reputable tour company will be moderately-priced.
How to Get Around
The way you travel around Nicaragua can also drastically increase or decrease your budget. Most cities in Nicaragua are easy to navigate but may be safer to use private transportation. In the popular town of San Juan Del Sur, hiring transportation is unnecessary.
Tourists can easily and safely walk the town without needing to take a taxi or bus. However, if you’re looking to go to the outskirts or another beach close by, you might want to consider hiring a private company or car.
If you feel safer with private transportation, you have to be willing to pay higher prices. Private transportation companies often have services all over the West Coast of the country. For a private car, you should expect to pay a few hundred dollars for 2 people if you’re traveling from Managua to San Juan Del Sur. Uber does not exist in Nicaragua, so be careful with who you hire.
There are many professional companies that have secure websites to offer their services and a contact number for any questions. Taxis can be easily hailed, but you should only look for cars that have a taxi sign and have proof that they are a legitimate service.
Buses and Taxis
If you’re looking to travel around the country, you have a few different options. There are local buses, which the expatriate community calls “Chicken Buses” or there are private drivers. The Chicken Bus will be the most affordable way to travel, but not the most comfortable – keep in mind that it’s a local bus that is a donated school bus and it’s often packed beyond capacity.
Managua can get very busy and to stay safe it’s highly recommended that you take a taxi wherever you go. In smaller cities, you may not even need to hire transportation because you can walk.
Top Cities to Visit
While Nicaragua may be a smaller country, there are still plenty of places for travelers to explore. Home to a range of cities that offer guests different vibes and attractions, visitors can enjoy historical sites, beaches, and volcanoes.
Here’s a brief overview of some of the most popular tourist destinations in the country.
Managua is the capital and largest city in Nicaragua. The vast urban landscape is situated on the south shore of Lake Managua with a view of the Momotombo volcano in the backdrop. The city itself is very busy and you’ll find that many travelers are arriving and departing from Managua.
Within the city, you’ll find colorful metal trees and multiple monuments to past leaders like Carlos Fonseca and Augusto Sandino. But the city has no true center and you’ll find that there are museums, monuments, and cathedrals scattered throughout.
San Juan Del Sur
San Juan Del Sur is one of Nicaragua’s busiest tourist spots because it’s centrally located between a string of beautiful beaches on the Pacific Coast. The beaches are extremely popular amongst surfers because of the combination of waves.
Playa Maderas has strong waves, while Playa Marsella would be better for beginning surfers. In the distance, the Christ of Mercy statue towers on a cliffside. Many travelers visit San Juan Del Sur, but you’ll find that the young backpackers and enthusiastic surfers dominate the scene.
Still standing, Granada is the oldest Spanish colonial town in the Americas. The city is filled with brightly painted buildings and narrow streets that have their own unique architecture. The Spanish colonial landmarks have survived the tests of time and today are popular tourist attractions.
The famous Cathedral of Granada is part of the city’s main plaza and Central Park. The cobblestone streets are safe for tourists and can be easily walked. But if you want to explore beyond the city to the nearby Isletas, you can always take a taxi to the Lake Nicaragua shorefront.
León is the second largest city in Nicaragua, and it’s located in the northwestern part of the country, close to the border with Honduras. The city was founded by the Spanish and tourists can see living history on the streets.
The León Cathedral has both baroque and neoclassical architecture that’s absolutely stunning. Other tourist attractions besides the beautiful city include art collections, cosmopolitan eateries, and a thriving student community.
Ometepe is a unique island that is located in Lake Nicaragua because it’s home to two volcanoes. The Concepción Volcano is the largest of the two and is still active today. You can hike the volcano, but it’s considered to be quite difficult. The second half of the island is the Maderas Volcano, which is considered to be dormant.
The two volcanos combine to make a beautiful island with multiple attractions. The San Ramón Waterfall is a short but stunning hike. For natural hot springs, the Ojo de Agua has crystal clear water fed from an underground river.
While the island is small, there’s plenty to do. Tourists can easily take a ferry from Rivas to Moyogalpa to reach the island.
For a taste of the Caribbean, Bluefields is a popular town because it’s the heart of Nicaragua’s Creole culture. Tourists will find the streets are alive with music and dance. The unique Caribbean cuisines can be tasted, and you can experience the local lifestyle.
While Bluefields is not the most popular destination, it’s used as a transportation point to the nearby Pearl Lagoon, Pearl Keys, and Corn Islands.
For nature lovers, Masaya is home to a volcano and national park that can showcase the beauty of the country’s wildlife. The volcano crater is home to many creatures like deer, iguanas, and monkeys. The Masaya volcano itself is active and visitors can take a hike to peek inside.
The city of Masaya is also known to be the artisan center of Nicaragua. There are many handmade goods produced and sold in the area like hammocks and pottery.
Points of Interest
If you’re ready to ditch the cities and find some more adventures, there are plenty of exciting points of interest to see. The following consists mostly of natural attractions, which are great for those who love being outdoors. Each destination is worth a visit.
Discover the best of Nicaragua’s thermal springs to add to your itinerary, on our sister site, Top Hot Springs.
Somoto Canyon is home to one of the oldest rock formations in Central America and is located in northern Nicaragua. The close proximity to Honduras means that the rivers within the canyon are made from the Comali River and Tapacali River. The two rivers combine to make the Coco river.
Within its vertical walls, tourists can explore by boat to view sharp crevices and small ponds full of life. It should be mentioned that getting to Somoto Canyon is challenging due to its remote location and off-road terrain. There are tours that can be booked, which would provide tourists with the best overview and safe way to reach the canyon.
Located in the Maribios mountain range, the Cerro Negro is an active volcano that is popular with tourists because of the adrenaline activity offered by local companies. Tourists can take a sandboarding tour, which has guides to lead you up the volcano’s side and uses sturdy boards to slide your way down.
The Corn Islands
The Corn Islands are two islands that rest just 43 miles off the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua. Both islands, known as Big Corn Island and Little Corn Island, have sea coves, horseshoe bays, and underwater caves that tourists can explore. The crystal-clear waters of the Caribbean Sea are stunning and only add to the beautiful sunsets.
Laguna de Apoyo
Located between the cities of Granada and Masaya, the Laguna de Apoyo offers tourists a break away from the hustle and bustle of urban life. The lagoon was made a nature reserve in 1991 and is home to a variety of animal species. The unique lagoon’s beaches and tall crater walls have become a popular destination for tourists looking for a little adventure.
Just outside of Granada on Lake Nicaragua, there’s a group of about 365 islands scattered about the peninsula. These islands vary in size with some large enough for lakeside resorts and others too small to even build a single home.
Las Isletas is a huge tourist attraction because of its natural beauty and remote privacy. Each island can be visited only by boat, with a few just minutes from the shorefront dock outside of Granada.
With perfect barrel waves, Playa Colorado is a surfer’s paradise. A small gated community is located on the beach and provides visitors with entire houses, bungalows, and condominiums to rent for vacation. The beach is a pristine stretch that has been kept a secret from the general tourist population.
However, Playa Colorado is close to other small tourist spots, Playa Gigante and Playa Amarillo. Beginners surfers would do best at Playa Amarillo, while the experienced riders hit the barrels at Playa Colorado. There are also surf camps nearby that provide transportation or you can take a boat from San Juan Del Sur directly to Playa Colorado.
“Land of Lakes and Volcanoes”
With rugged charm, Nicaragua draws in a variety of tourists who want to experience the stunning beaches, volcanoes, and lakes. The diversity of the country between the two coasts and its history also make it a unique destination where tourists can step into two different worlds on one trip.
No matter where you decide to travel in Nicaragua, you’ll see beauty in every step and this relatively unknown tourist destination will surely call you back for another adventure.