- 10 Days
If you have limited time in Nicaragua, a trip through the southwest is big on awesome and small on hours in the bus. The region is a condensed wonderland of barreling surf, volcanoes, crater lakes, colonial towns and artisan villages that includes many of Nicaragua's must-see highlights.
Fly into Managua and take in the view across town from Sandino's silhouette on the Loma de Tiscapa before heading south and descending into the lush crater at Laguna de Apoyo for the night. Spend the next day swimming in the rich sulfuric waters or spotting birds and howler monkeys in the forest, before enjoying the spectacular night sky.
The following morning, visit the artisan workshops of the nearby Pueblos Blancos, including the pottery cooperative at San Juan de Oriente.
Then head 30 minutes down the road for some colonial splendor in charismatic Granada. Spend three nights taking in the wonderful streetscapes, visiting the museums and churches, and dining in the fine restaurants. While you're here take a kayaking day trip through the islets just offshore, and hike among the cloud forest atop Volcán Mombacho.
Next head down the highway to San Jorge. From here take the ferry to the out-of-this world Isla de Ometepe with its twin volcanoes and endless outdoor activities. Spend one night among the howler monkeys at Reserva Charco Verde and another at the base of Volcán Maderas, from where you can hike to the emerald-green crater lake surrounded by cloud forest.
Proceed across the isthmus to the surfing capital of San Juan del Sur, where you'll spend three days lazing on the splendid surrounding beaches or surfing some of the excellent breaks in the area. If you can drag yourself off the beach, take a day trip to the charming fishing village of El Ostional or, if you're lucky, to watch sea turtles arrive en masse at Refugio de Vida Silvestre La Flor. In the evenings, work your way though the happening beachfront bars and restaurants.
On your way back to Managua, stop at Masaya to shop for souvenirs and gifts in the excellent Mercado Artesanías (National Artisans Market) and visit the hammock workshops.
- 3 Weeks
Rich in nature and revolutionary culture, northern Nicaragua is equally rugged and refined. In one trip you'll go from sipping organic coffee at the source to surfing an active volcano. Charge your batteries, you'll want to take plenty of pictures or no one will believe you when you get home.
Upon arrival skip through Managua and head for the crumbling colonial beauty of León to give Nicaragua the fantastic introduction it deserves. Spend three days exploring this endearing city on foot, visiting fascinating museums, spacious mansions and glorious churches. If you're feeling energetic, hike one of the nearby volcanoes or surf the slopes of Cerro Negro.
From León head west to the beach at Las Peñitas and find a spot in a sand-floor beachside bar for the spectacular sunset. In the morning make an early start to travel north to Jiquilillo. Spend a couple of days soaking up the ambience in this pretty fishing village and paddling through the mangroves of the nearby Reserva Natural Estero Padre Ramos.
Then travel across the Maribios volcanic chain and into the mountains to Estelí, where you can visit cigar factories and check out revolutionary murals. After a couple of days head into the mountains in the Área Protegida Miraflor for two days of horseback riding, wildlife spotting and farm-culture immersion.
Move on to Somoto and to Monumento Nacional Cañon de Somoto to swim, jump and rappel your way through the canyon.
Next morning travel to Matagalpa for a few caffeine-fueled days picking coffee beans and hiking on local plantations. Continue climbing higher into the mountains, stopping at the gorgeous Selva Negra coffee estate, before arriving in Jinotega, gateway to the cloud forests of Reserva Natural Cerro Datanlí–El Diablo. Spend a day in town to climb Cerro la Cruz and then spend a couple of days hiking in the reserve.
Give your muscles a break with a boat cruise on Lago de Apanás before continuing on to San Rafael del Norte. Here you can visit one of Nicaragua's most magnificent churches or fly through the pine forest on a zipline.
Cruising the Río San Juan
- 2 Weeks
The southeast corner of Nicaragua is an unparalleled playground for nature lovers of all dispositions. It boasts both comfortable eco-retreats and more strenuous adventures among lush wetlands and towering rainforests that are filled with fascinating ruins, colorful reptiles and first-class birdlife.
From Managua fly or bus it to San Carlos. Spend a morning checking out the old Spanish fort and waterfront before taking the afternoon boat to the enchanted archipelago of the Islas Solentiname. Spend a night on both Isla San Fernando and Isla Mancarrón, following jungle trails to in situ petroglyphs, swimming in the clear waters and visiting local artist workshops.
From Mancarrón, charter a boat to the Río Papaturro in the Refugio de Vida Silvestre Los Guatuzos, stopping to spot the amazing birdlife at some of the smaller islands on the way. Hike through the thick monkey-inhabited forest or kayak in the wetlands before heading out on an alligator safari in the evening.
Next take the public boat back to San Carlos. Pick up a riverboat down the Río San Juan to Boca de Sábalos, a small river town surrounded by steamy jungle. Among the many excursions on offer here is a tour to a local cacao plantation and chocolate factory. Or simply relax on your hotel balcony and spot aquatic birds on the banks of the majestic river.
After two nights in Sábalos, continue downstream to El Castillo, where an imposing Spanish fort looms over the rapids. Spend two days here riding horses through the rolling green hills and and enjoying the charms of this delightful little jungle-bound town.
If you have a day to spare, detour north on a day trip to Refugio Bartola biological station, with a network of trails through towering old-growth forest and kayaks to paddle up the narrow jungle-clad Río Bartola to crystal-clear swimming holes.
Otherwise, continue the journey by picking up a riverboat heading downriver to San Juan de Nicaragua, where the Río San Juan pours into the Caribbean Sea. Give yourself three days to explore the ruins of Greytown, spot manatees in hidden lagoons and head up the Río Indio into the heart of the Reserva Biológica Indio-Maíz. From San Juan fly directly back to Managua or take a panga (motorboat) on to Bluefields and return from there.
West Coast Highlights
- 7 days
Pack several heavyweight highlights into a week, making the most of the country's history, nature and culture.
The following day, spend the morning shopping for excellent quality handicrafts in the Pueblos Blancos and Masaya, then make a beeline for the Laguna de Apoyo for an afternoon's relaxation beside the crater lake. In the evening, head for the Volcán Masaya to watch lava bubble in its crater.
The following morning, head to the San Jorge dock and take a boat to Isla de Ometepe. Spend two days exploring the island, trekking up one of its volcanoes, kayaking through mangroves, hiking to the waterfall and staying on a tranquil finca (farm).
Return to the mainland, and head for San Juan del Sur for a couple of days of sea, surf and partying. Explore the beaches north and south of town in search of the best place to hit the waves.
On the final day, return to Managua and devote your time to visiting historic landmarks, and finish off the day bar-hopping in Los Robles and Altamira.
Discover Caribbean Coast
- 10 days
Get off the beaten track. Explore the Caribbean coast's indigenous communities and go snorkeling and diving in teal waters.
Fly from Managua to Great Corn Island and spend a couple of days enjoying its gorgeous beaches, snorkeling and alluring creole vibe. On day three, take the morning panga to Little Corn Island, a tiny car-free backpacker gem, where golden coves and superb diving await, not to mention some excellent culinary experiences and surprisingly lively nightlife.
After a couple of days, head back to Great Corn Island and fly to Bluefields, the ‘capital’ of the Caribbean region – spend the night for a taste of Moskitian culture. The next morning take a panga through the mangrove lagoons and thickly forested rivers to Pearl Lagoon, and spend three days enjoying an absolute highlight of the Nicaribbean. While there, take an overnight trip to Pearl Keys, to live out your castaway fantasies on palm-covered islands, sipping cold beers in a hammock between swimming in turquoise waters.
Also from Pearl Lagoon, get to know some of the nearby villages, including the delightful Garifuna settlement of Orinoco and the Miskito hamlet of Kakabila, both easily visited on day trips. Return to Managua via Bluefields.