An affable all-rounder, Nicaragua embraces travelers with diverse offerings of volcanic landscapes, historic towns, sensational beaches, remote, idyllic islands, wave-battered Pacific beaches and pristine forests.
Whether it's dipping your toes into the crystalline Caribbean or paddling out to the crashing waves of the pounding Pacific, Nicaragua's beaches always deliver the goods. The big barrels of the Pacific coast are revered in surfing circles while the clear waters of the Corn Islands are superb for snorkeling. More sedentary beach bums can choose between accessible slices of sand lined with fine restaurants and happening bars, and natural affairs backed by a wall of rainforest. Even the best beaches in the country are refreshingly free of development, so you can experience them just as nature intended.
Looking for the ultimate rush? Nicaragua's diverse geography, intense energy and anything-goes attitude is perfect for exhilarating outdoor adventures. Get ready to check off lots of new experiences from your list including surfing down an active volcano, diving into underwater caves, canoeing through alligator-infested wetlands, swimming across sea channels between tiny white-sand islands and landing a 200-lb tarpon. Nicaragua's great outdoors are relatively untouched – at many key attractions, there are no signs and few crowds – making this so-called "land of lakes and volcanoes" a fantastic place for an independent adventure.
Nicaragua's colonial architecture comes in two distinct flavors. The elegant streetscapes of Granada, Nicaragua's best-preserved colonial town, have been entrancing travelers for centuries with their architectural grace. The town boasts a meticulously restored cathedral, well-groomed plaza and perfectly maintained mansions that shelter lush internal courtyards. Working-class León offers a different colonial experience where crumbling 300-year-old houses and churches are interspersed with revolutionary murals, and architectural masterpieces house corner stores. It's a vibrant city that displays its pride in its heritage without feeling like a museum.
Getting Off the Beaten Track
Few destinations have such beauty as Nicaragua, yet remain preserved. Before you know it, you've dropped off the tourist trail and into a world of majestic mountains, cooperative farms, wetlands thronged with wildlife and empty jungle-clad beaches. Rent a 4WD vehicle, if you're up for it – it's the best way to access some of the less-traveled corners of the country, or hop abroad an east-coast-bound boat – and forge onward to visit remote indigenous communities, overgrown pre-Columbian ruins and untouched rainforests.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Nicaragua.
Described by the Spaniards as the gates of hell, the craters that comprise Volcán Masaya National Park are the most easily accessible active volcanoes in the country. The two volcanoes at the park, Masaya and Nindirí, together comprise five craters. Of these, Cráter Santiago is still very active and bubbling with red-hot lava. The park entrance is just 7km from Masaya on the Managua highway and most tour operators in Granada run evening trips to the crater.
The Coco (or Wangki), Central America’s longest river, runs all the way to the Caribbean, but its first impression may be its most spectacular. Gushing from underground, it has carved solid rock into this 3km-long gorge that drops 160m, and at times is just a hair under 10m wide. Protected as Monumento Nacional Cañon de Somoto, the canyon is an unmissable experience.
It’s been a few decades since this 1345m volcano, the defining feature of the Granada skyline, has acted up, but it is still most certainly active and sends up the periodic puff of smoke. It’s easy to get to the crown of cloud forest, steaming with fumaroles and other bubbling volcanic activity beneath the misty vines and orchids. Attractions include three hiking trails of varying difficulty, an organic coffee farm and more. Take a tour from Granada or drive yourself.
The second-largest tract of intact primary forest in the country, the Reserva Biológica Indio-Maíz is a vast wilderness and a hugely important rainforest ecosystem with incredible biodiversity. While much of the reserve is restricted, it is possible to visit certain parts of it. In 2018 horrific fires caused by outsiders, who were clearing forest illegally to use as farmland, destroyed huge areas of ancient forest and it will take decades for the reserve to recover.
One of the oldest churches in Central America, Convento San Francisco boasts a robin's egg–blue birthday-cake facade and houses both an important convent and one of the best museums in the region. The highlight is the museum that focuses on Nicaragua's pre-Columbian people. Don't miss the Zapatera statuary, two solemn regiments of black-basalt statues, carved between AD 800 and 1200, then left behind on the ritual island of Zapatera.
Officially known as the Basílica de la Asunción, León’s cathedral is the largest in Central America, its expansive design famously (and perhaps apocryphally) approved for construction in much more important Lima, Peru. Leonese leaders originally submitted a more modest but bogus set of plans, but architect Diego José de Porres Esquivel, the Capitán General of Guatemala (also responsible for San Juan Bautista de Subtiaba, La Recolección and La Merced churches, among others), pulled the switcheroo and built this beauty instead.
Discovered by miners in 1874, these fossilized tracks record the passage of perhaps 10 people – men, women and children – as well as birds, raccoons, deer and possum across the muddy shores of Lago de Managua some 6000 to 8000 years ago. Despite early speculation that they were running from a volcanic eruption, forensics specialists have determined that these folks were in no hurry – and, interestingly, were fairly tall at between 145cm and 160cm. Come here by taxi (US$2 to US$4).
León’s most entertaining and eclectic museum is housed in La XXI (the 21st Garrison), decorated with murals graphically depicting methods the Guardia Nacional used to torture prisoners. What makes this museum unmissable is the striking contrast of its main subjects: a quirky collection of life-sized papier-mâché figures from Leonese history and legend (such as Rubén Darío and a musician known as the Divino Leproso), handmade by founder señora Toruña.
Perhaps the most beautiful church in the city, this landmark was built in 1534. Most come here for the spectacular views from the bell tower – especially picturesque at sunset. Originally completed in 1539, it was razed by pirates in 1655 and rebuilt with its current baroque facade between 1781 and 1783. Damaged by William Walker’s forces in 1854, it was restored with the current elaborate interior in 1862. Today Catholics come here to see the Virgen de Fatima.
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Enjoy the view: Nicaragua