Even though Nicaragua is the largest country in Central America, years of political and civil unrest coupled with hugely destructive earthquakes have meant that it is one of the least visited countries in the region. However, after years of slumber, this country is now the “it” spot for travelers. Expats are even moving in and buying the property. This is a beautiful, wonderful country, and it’s better to get there now before it catches on and prices skyrocket! I spent a lot of time here traveling the country and was shocked how few tourists leave the main southern cities but get a little off the tourist trail and you’ll find warm, friendly people willing to show you around, have a beer, and open up their homes to you.
Note: In Nicaragua, USD is used instead of the local currency, Nicaraguan Córdoba (NIO).
Accommodation – Hostel dorm rooms average from $8-18 USD throughout the country. Hostel private rooms and cheap budget hotels cost around $18 USD per night. The most popular kind of lodgings in Nicaragua are hospedajes – small family run hotels costing from $19-24 USD per night. Hammocks can also be rented in many places for $5 USD per night. Airbnb is available in Nicaragua and you can find a shared room for around $10 USD per night and an entire home starting around $30 USD.
Food – By eating from street stalls, it’s possible to eat for less than $1.75 USD per meal. Most sit-down Nicaraguan restaurants are between $2.50-5 USD per dish. You’ll get the staple dish: gallo pinto (rice and beans), a meat (usually chicken), and plantains. For western food such as burgers, salads, or pizza, prices are usually around $6.50-10 USD per dish. One of the best local dishes in the country is Vigoron (yuca, pork rinds, and cabbage). It’s delicious! If you cook your own food, expect to pay $27-35 USD per week for groceries that will include pasta, vegetables, chicken, and other basic foods. You can buy local beers at a grocery store for about $1 USD each and expect to pay about double that at a bar or restaurant.
Transportation – Within the cities, buses are efficient and extremely inexpensive at just $0.25 USD – but beware, they are fiercely crowded and pickpocketing is rife. Taxis usually cost around $0.75-2 USD per person for a short trip. Intercity bus ride costs vary depending on if you get the expreso (no stops) or ordinario (aka the chicken buses, which constantly stop to pick up people). Generally, bus rides never cost more than $4 USD between destinations, with expreso buses about 30% more expensive than ordinario buses. (A bus ride from Managua to San Juan del Sur costs $6 USD and takes about 5 hours.) If you’re looking to get to Costa Rica by bus it’ll cost you about $80-90 USD, and to Guatemala, It’ll cost about $160 USD. If you’re on a quick trip, you can also fly to different areas. While it’s more expensive ($165 USD round trip), it only takes 1.5 hours to get to the Corn Islands as opposed to a full day overland!
Activities – Generally, activities are quite cheap in Nicaragua. There are lots of markets to explore, beaches to relax on and cities to wander through for free. Most day trips and activities (think hiking, surfing, kayaking) cost between $10-30 USD. A volcano boarding day trip will cost about $30 USD. Museum entrance fees are approximately $0.75-2 USD.
Suggested daily budget – $30-40 USD (Note: This is a suggested budget assuming you’re staying in a hostel, eating out at the more local restaurants and markets, cooking some of your meals, and using local transportation. Using the budget tips below, you can always lower this number. However, if you stay in fancier accommodation, drink a ton, or eat out more often, expect this to be higher!)
Money Saving Tips
- Refill your water – Most hostels and hotels will refill your water bottle for $0.25 USD. Save money and the environment by avoiding too many plastic bottles.
- Haggle – Don’t be embarrassed to haggle when buying things in the markets. It’ll save you money and get to connect with locals!
- Eat at the fritanga – These buffet style restaurants offer amazing value for your money. A typical meal will include rice, meat, cheese and cabbage salad. An entire table of food can cost just $5 USD.
- Binge on gallo pinto – I’ll be honest: I found Nicaraguan food pretty bland. Be prepared to eat a lot of gallo pinto (rice and beans), meat, and fried plantains. It’s not the most exciting food, but it was delicious (and super economical).
- Avoid the Western food – Western food costs over double the local food. (Plus, did you really come all this way to have some really bad burgers and pizza? I doubt it!)
- Take the local “Chicken Bus” – Local buses (called Chicken Buses) are the cheapest way to get around the country. There are a lot of tourist buses that will take you around the country but if you’re looking to criss-cross Nicaragua for just a few dollars, take these buses!
- Couchsurf — Nothing’s cheaper than sleeping for free. Couchsurfing connects you with locals who will give you not only a free place to stay, but also a local tour guide who can introduce you to all the great places to see. There’s a lot of hosts in the country.
- Do a homestay/learn Spanish – Want to stay longer? Take part in a homestay. There are a lot of opportunities to stay longer, volunteer, learn Spanish, and farm. If this interests you, hostels and tourist offices in any big city can help organize this for you. Esteli, Ometepe, and León are popular destinations for this.
Top Things to See and Do in Nicaragua
- Explore Managua – If you have time, visit Managua. It’s the capital and home to many beautiful buildings and museums. The recently renovated Plaza de la Republica is home to the Palacio Nacional, which is still a government building but also houses an art gallery and museum. Next to the Palacio is the Catedral Viejo, a dilapidated ruin of a once wonderful cathedral destroyed in the earthquake. However, if you only have a few days in Nicaragua, skip this city and head straight to a volcano or lake!
- Admire Colonial Granada – Granada has some of the best preserved colonial architecture in Nicaragua and due to the recent investment in tourism, it has become very popular among travelers. Take in the magnificent buildings in the Plaza de Independencia, hike a nearby volcano, and kayak the nearby islet. Be sure to eat at Kathy’s Waffles, Garden Cafe, and one of the Vigoren stalls in the park.
- Kayak around Las Isletas – Las Isletas is a chain of small islands on a lake near Granada. Kayaking tours give travelers a chance to experience some nature in a calm and relaxing setting. A two-hour trip generally costs $33 USD.
- Relax in San Juan del Sur – A hit with surfers and backpackers, San Juan del Sur is the most popular beach town in Nicaragua. The beach itself is in a great setting and enclosed by prehistoric volcanic hills. It’s the biggest backpacker spot in the country and you’ll find a lot of cheap bars and hostels here as a well as a constant party if you want one. Stay at Pachamama or The Naked Tiger Hostel (and tell Megan I say hi!).
- Go fishing – Both the Caribbean and the Pacific border the shores of Nicaragua and fishing here is pretty popular. Off the coast, you’ll find a myriad of fish – some up to about 200lbs There are also chartered trips around the volcanic islands within the Lago.
- Learn to surf – Nicaragua may not be the first destination that comes to mind when you think of surfing, but it’s a huge pastime here due to the year-round waves and warm water. There are plenty of surf schools that offer tuition and equipment hire around the towns of Rivas and San Juan del Sur. Expect to pay around $10 USD per day for board rental and $25 USD per hour for lessons.
- Visit Ometepe Island – This extraordinary island is located on the Lago de Nicaragua and is formed by two joined volcanoes, Concepcion and Maderas. Hiking the volcanoes, kayaking and cycling are the main activities here. It’s beautiful; the locals are friendly and the food and accommodation are cheap, so it’s a great place to unwind for a few days. The walks up the volcanoes are pretty strenuous and take up a whole day.
- Hike Miraflores – Located in Esteli in northern Nicaragua, this national park was the highlight of my trip. Wander through a beautiful cloud forest, around small farms, and over rivers and waterfalls. You’ll hardly run into any other tourists — it’s like you have the whole jungle to yourself. You can take day-long or multi-day treks to the park (the multi-day trips enable you to stay with local host families in small communities). There are also programs to help you learn to farm or teach here. I did a one-day trek ($15 USD for two meals and the mandatory, very helpful guide), which started at 7am and concluded around 4pm. Bonus: All the money from the tours goes back into supporting the community and farmers.
- Make friends with the Stone Man – Alberto Gutiérrez has been carving animals and symbols into the stones outside Esteli for decades. He had a vision of angels who told him to carve, and in an effort to end his alcoholism, began carving every time he craved a drink. He’s not easy to get to, but when you find him, Alberto will welcome you into his home, give you fresh fruit, and show you all his stone carvings, which he says were inspired by God. He doesn’t speak any English, so if you don’t speak Spanish, just nod and enjoy the carvings. He also won’t ask for any money, but donations are welcome.
- Explore the Masaya markets – The main attractions in the city of Masaya are two craft markets, the Mercado Municipal and the Mercado de Artesanias. Every Thursday night at the Mercado de Artesanias is the “Night of Revelry” featuring folkloric dancing, local food, and music.
- Enjoy the history of León – This city was Nicaragua’s capital until 1857. To this day remains the country’s “intellectual” capital and it is home to the National University. Remnants of the political war between the Somozas and Sandinistas can be seen in the graffiti and murals around the city. There are a lot of cathedrals in this city (it’s famous for them) and once you have had enough of those, be sure to visit the Museum of the Revolution. It’s an interesting take on the Sandinista movement. You get your own guide too (who was probably a Sandinista too).
- Visit “old” Leon – The ruins of León Viejo date back to the 16th century and are a short trip from León. The site is Nicaragua’s only UNESCO World Heritage listing and is one of the oldest Spanish colonial settlements in the Americas. While this isn’t some lavish ruin site, it’s really the only place to see and learn about the country’s founding colonial past.
- Hike up a volcano – There are a lot of volcanoes in the country, and hiking them is a popular activity. It was the main reason why I headed to Nicaragua, and I ended up hiking three. The two volcanoes on Ometepe are popular day hikes. They’re a lot more challenging than you’ll be led to believe, but worth it (look out for monkeys!). León is probably the best place to do some hiking, though, since there are a lot of volcanoes there. If you’re looking to get your hiking fix, this is where to do it! The most popular volcanoes are Cerro Negro (volcano boarding), Telica (where you go for sunset hikes), San Cristóbal (the longest and hardest), and Momotombo (second hardest).
- Surf down a volcano – What’s the difference between sand-boarding and volcano-boarding? Cerro Negro, a young and active volcano, offers tourists a chance to board down its graveled slopes through an organized tour. You will have to hike up to the top, which takes around an hour, so be prepared for a climb and to get dirty! A half-day outing costs about $30 USD.
- Attend the San Sebastian Festival – Every year near the end of January, people in Diriamba have a huge celebration in honor of San Sebastian, the city’s patron saint. Festivities officially run the 17th to the 27th and include colorful parades, a huge feast, and plenty of traditional music.
- Hang out at Lake Apoyo – Lake Apoyo is a 48-square mile lake that actually lies on the Apoyo volcano crater. It’s a beautiful setting with very clear water for swimming. Consider renting a kayak, fishing, sailing, or going on a hike. This is a nice place for a relaxing getaway for a couple of days.
- Enjoy the Corn Islands – On the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua, the Corn Islands are a gorgeous place for a vacation retreat. Most people come here to snorkel, scuba dive, to fish, and to relax. Small boats will take you between the different islands. It’s the best chill out spot in the whole country and is less crowded than San Juan del Sur (though still pretty popular!).