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. At the time of writing, visitors were only allowed to access the Plaza de Oviedo, a clearing by the Santiago crater's rim named after the 16th-century Spanish monk who, suspecting that the bubbling lava was gold, descended to the crater with a bag and small shovel – and came back alive. Here, the smell of sulfur is strong, and you only get 15 minutes at the viewpoint – enough to watch the molten magma play – before you're ushered back into your vehicle. The park has several marked hiking trails, many of which require a guide (prices vary). These include the lava tunnels of Tzinancanostoc and El Comalito, a small, steam-emitting volcanic cone. They were closed at the time of writing, but may reopen in future. From the summit of Volcán Masaya (632m), the easternmost volcano, you get a wonderful view of the surrounding countryside, including the Laguna de Masaya and town of Masaya.
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. There are three routes to explore the canyon. You won’t always have comfortable footing, so reef shoes or sandals help a lot, and you’ll have more fun if you’re fit. Within the canyon proper there is one deep stretch of about 200m where you'll have to swim (tours will always supply life vests). The full six-hour, 13km circuit will take you to two bat caves well above the rim before you hike down to the river, boulder-hop, swim through (small) rapids and leap off 8m rocks into deep swimming holes. This version is highly recommended for nature fanatics, as you'll hike through pristine landscapes and get to see the point where the Tapacalí and Comali rivers join at the birthplace of the Río Coco. The most popular option is the four-hour, 6km classic loop: you head straight to the far entrance of the canyon, from where you’ll swim, hike and leap beneath slate-rock faces and jagged peaks until you reach the exit. For those who are adverse to exercise, there is also a three-hour 'lite' tour where you are paddled up the gorge a short distance in a small boat and then can splash around in the canyon mouth or float around in an inflatable tube. Following a couple of incidents, local guides (US$15/US$20 half-/full day for up to five people) are now mandatory if you want to venture inside the canyon. In addition to having expert knowledge of river conditions – which can become dangerous during the wet season – guides also blend local insight with adventure and create a richer experience, though very few speak English. Guides from the local community of Sonis, at the entrance to the reserve, have formed a fantastic community tourism organization called Somoto Canyon Tours and work on a rotation basis. Another option is to visit with one of the guides from local tour operator Namancambre Tours (found in Somoto town). To visit the canyon take any El Espino–bound bus (US$0.40, 30 minutes) from the bus terminal to the trail head at Km 231 near the community of Sonis (look out for the sign), where you will meet your guide. A taxi will cost around US$8. From here it's a 3km hike to the canyon, including a river crossing that may be over a meter deep. The last bus back to Somoto passes through at around 5:30pm. If you're coming from Honduras via El Espino – the Del Sol bus line has an authorized stop right at the entrance – there's no need to go into Somoto. The canyon often closes in October, when the water is too high. Call the guides to check on conditions.
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. Reserva Natural Volcán Mombacho is managed by the Fundación Cocibolca, which since 1999 has been building trails and running an eco-mobile (think refurbished military jeeps seating 25) on the 40% grade up to 1100m. Get there early to take the short trail through the organic coffee farm, or check out the mariposario (butterfly garden) and orchid garden (free with entrance), close to the parking lot. At the top you can find three species of monkey, 168 species of bird and more than 100 types of orchids as part of the jungle canopy that this park is intent on preserving. There is a choice of several trails, including Sendero del Cráter, a 1.5km jaunt to the fumaroles, plus great views of Granada and Las Isletas, and Sendero la Puma, a steeper 4km trek around the lip of the crater, with even better views. Guides, many of whom speak English, are available at the entrance and cost US$12 to US$22 per group of up to seven. Guides are required for a trek up Sendero el Tigrillo, a heart-pumping two-hour tromp up to two overlooks. The park is open to the public with regular hours on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. However, groups of 10 or more can make arrangements to visit on other days. Time your arrival to coincide with an eco-mobile departure, at 8:30am, 10am and 1pm. If you have a 4WD, you can drive up the volcano for an extra US$22 – plus US$5 for every adult and US$3 for every child in the car.
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. The museum is through the small door on the left, where guides (some of whom speak English) are available for tours; tips are appreciated. Other museum highlights include top-notch primitivist art, a scale model of the city and a group of papier-mâché indigenous people cooking, relaxing in hammocks and swinging on comelazatoaztegams, a sort of 360-degree see-saw. Most of the Isla Zapatera statues were discovered in the late 1880s and gathered in Granada in the 1920s. The convent itself was originally constructed in 1585, subsequently burned to the ground by pirates and later William Walker, rebuilt in 1868 and restored in 1989.
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). The excavation was undertaken by the Carnegie Foundation in 1941 and 1942, and unearthed 14 layers, or 4m, of earth. They found some later Chorotega ceramics (about 2m down) and other intriguing artifacts, though there’s no money to take it further. The nifty on-site museum, with human skulls, a fossilized bison track and lots of ceramics, was closed for renovation at research time, but there's a detailed bilingual exhibition on the excavations and different theories surrounding the footprints. Don’t skip this one; it’s an international treasure.
Three blocks north of the cathedral, the 1786 Iglesia de la Recolección is considered the city’s most beautiful church, a Mexican-style baroque confection of swirling columns and bas-relief medallions that portray the life of Christ. Dyed a deep yellow, accented with cream and age, the lavishly decorated facade may be what makes the cover of all the tourist brochures, but be sure to stop inside and admire the slender mahogany columns and ceiling decorated with harvest motifs.
The hollow shell of Managua’s Old Cathedral remains Managua’s most poignant metaphor, shattered by the 1972 earthquake – and slowly undergoing restoration. Though its neoclassical facade is beautiful and serene, attended by stone angels and dappled in golden light, its interior is empty and off-limits: a cathedral without a heart in a city without a center.
This 20km-long, sandy barrier island (in some places only 300m wide) has swimming holes and lots of wildlife, including hundreds of migrating bird species, crocodiles, nesting turtles and mosquitoes galore. On one side of the uninhabited island you’ll find long, wild, sandy beaches facing the Pacific, on the other, red and black mangroves reflected in emerald lagoons. Las Peñitas ranger station and various accommodations offer guided boat tours (US$55 for up to four people) and kayaking excursions (US$12 per person). During the turtle egg-laying season, which runs July through January and peaks in September and October, thousands of olive ridleys, careys and leatherbacks lay their eggs in El Vivero, close to the Las Peñitas entrance. For the best wildlife-watching opportunities, it's best to go at low tide, or at dawn or sunset if you're especially interested in birds. If it's turtles you're here to see, try a nighttime turtle tour (US$25 per person, June to December) with guided camping. You can also go to the reserve yourself if you can negotiate a ride with a local fisher. Another option is to hire a local guide (US$10) – ask at the Las Peñitas ranger station or stop into the hotel-restaurant-tour outfitter Barca de Oro.
Climbing this 1394m volcano is challenging but worthwhile. Guides are required for the seven- to eight-hour round-trip trek (with four to five hours of climbing); at the top, you’ll reach cloud forest ending with a steep crater descent to a chilly jade-green lake. There are three trails to the top: the most popular at Finca Magdelena and two slightly longer trails beginning at Hacienda Mérida and Finca El Porvenir. The Finca Magdalena trail offers the money shot of Volcán Concepción. Prices depend on where you start, whether you need transportation, and how many are in your group: you'll pay anywhere between US$15 and US$30 per person. Your lodgings can help you arrange the excursion. If climbing is not your thing, consider horseback riding or cycling around the circumference of Maderas (35km) on the rough dirt road; you'll be passing through one of the remotest parts of Nicaragua. Both can be arranged through local accommodations.
Discover volcano boarding
Enjoy the view: Nicaragua