Nicaragua Travel Guide
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Central America’s Largest Country
Costa Rica’s neighbor to the north, Nicaragua, is Central America’s largest country. The majority of the population lives on the Pacific coast, particularly in or around the capital city of Managua. There are several beach communities along the Pacific that are also home to larger populations. Much of the Caribbean coast is uninhabited and untouched, with miles upon miles of lush, dense forests.
The Caribbean coast is made up of only 2 autonomous regions still celebrating the traditions of their ancestors. This area has a unique culture and language due to the fact that it was never inhabited by the Spanish. Many people there speak English, Spanish, Creole and other indigenous languages.
Known for its dramatic terrain of lakes, volcanoes and beaches, Nicaragua is rich in both natural beauty and in tradition. The immense Lake Nicaragua (or Lake Cocibolca) and the regal stratovolcano Momotombo sit north of the capital Managua. South of Managua right of the shores of Lake Managua is the charming Granada, noted for its Spanish colonial architecture and an archipelago of navigable islets rich in tropical bird life.
The official currency of Nicaragua is the Cordoba, but there are some establishments in more touristic cities like Granada and San Juan del Sur that do accept US Dollars. In some touristic areas, there is a sizeable population that speaks English.
Transportation is mostly done by buses, sometimes small local buses known as “chicken buses.” We do offer several options for transportation such as small bus/van or domestic flight from Costa Rica.
Along the northwestern shore of Lake Nicaragua sits the charming and mesmerizing city of Granada, Often considered one of Nicaragua’s most economically and politically important cities, Granada was the first European city in mainland America. Granada is known for its colonial heritage, which is immediately evidenced by the architecture and even some of the cobblestone streets found throughout the city. It is common to see visitors receiving a city tour via horse-drawn carriage. Granada is an excellent city to walk around while enjoying the colonial architecture, picturesque churches, and the famous La Calzada Street. Another interesting activity in Granada is the Cacao/Chocolate Museum that is located within the Hotel Spa Granada.
Granada is also famous for it’s mini islands that dot Lake Nicaragua, Central America’s largest lake. Known as the Isletas Granadas, the over 365 isletas were formed when the now dormant Mombacho Volcano blew most of its cone into the lake. During a boat tour of the isletas, one can see capuchin monkeys, birds, and the historic Fort San Pablo which was used as defense against pirates.
Near Granada is the tiny town of Masaya. The market in Masaya is famous for its wide variety of artisan crafts that the local people make. Masaya also has a beautiful water walkway. Also near Granada is the Lago de Apoyo which is a volcanic lagoon within a natural reserve. This is an excellent place for a day trip to go swimming, water activities and nature.
Less than 60 miles northwest of Managua and 11 miles east of the Pacific Ocean lies the charismatic university town of Leon. The second largest city in Nicaragua sits along the Chiquito River and serves as a crucial industrial, agricultural, and commercial, political and intellectual center for Nicaragua. Leon is home to the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua, which is the 2nd oldest university in all of Central America. It is also a major exporter of exporting sugar cane, cattle, peanut, plantain, and sorghum.
The Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption of Leon is a must-see attraction. This historic Cathedral built in the Baroque style has survived earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and civil war due to its anti-seismic construction. There are a number of tunnels that connect the Cathedral with other temples. These were used as hideouts or escape routes during terrorist attacks by British, Dutch, and French pirates. This cathedral is also home to the tomb of famous Nicaraguan poet and diplomat Ruben Dario, whose tomb sits at the foot of the statue of St. Paul. Dario’s tomb is overlooked by the statue of a saddened Lion. The cathedral also houses the tombs of several other well-known Nicaraguan figures.
Cerro Negro Volcano
About 11 miles from Leon is the Cerro Negro Volcano, the youngest volcano in Central America. Cerro Negro’s black color shows a stark contrast to the green hills that surround it. Cerro Negro has frequent volcano-boarding tours. During this tour, you first climb about an hour to the top of Cerro Negro where you will then begin an adrenaline filled adventure. Slide or surf down the 728 meter high volcano in less than 3 minutes. The speed depends on just how fast you prefer to go.
San Juan del Sur
Beach lovers find a gem in Nicaragua’s San Juan del Sur. Located on the southern Pacific Coast, San Juan del Sur is a quaint fishing town with unbelievable sunsets. San Juan del Sur thrives on fishing and tourism, and was once a major shipping port for Nicaragua. The town features a large crescent shaped beach dotted with sailboats and fishing boats. The beach is a great place to sunbathe, walk, swim or play a pickup game of soccer. There are several restaurants and bars along the main beach, featuring both local and international cuisines. The nightlife in San Juan del Sur can be found in the bars along the main beach as well.
Christ of the Mercy
A unique feature of San Juan del Sur is the statue of Christ of the Mercy sits above town on the northern end of the bay. The Mirador of the Christ of Mercy sits on one of the highest points on the bay and is one of the tallest Jesus statue in the world. This is an unforgettable place to watch the sun set over the bay of San Juan del Sur.
Also popular in San Juan del Sur is the culture of surfing. The nearby Madera Beach is a favorite of surfers and also hosts several surfing competitions each year.
San Juan del Sur’s claim to fame amongst visitors and backpackers is the weekly Sunday Funday celebration. Visitors pay for a ticket to the celebration and have access to free shuttles between various bars and clubs in the area. The day-long celebration features DJs, dancing, swimming, and cocktails.
Ometepe is an island formed by the joining of the Concepcion and Madera Volcanoes in the middle of Lake Nicaragua. There is a small isthmus of land in between the two volcanoes which give the island its hourglass shape. Visitors to Ometepe must arrive by ferry boat from mainland Nicaragua.While in the breathtaking Ometepe, visitors can tour the volcanoes, the island and even the tobacco farms which are crucial to the economy of the area.
There is also a natural spring located on the island which is an excellent place for a picnic and a refreshing swim in the spring’s fresh water. Additionally, connected to the island is a small strip of land/beach which is a great opportunity for swimming or taking pictures. Ometepe is also home to ancient petroglyphs, or stone carvings, which were thought to be for purposes of depicting the constellations, gods, animals, and much more.
Bluefields and Corn Islands
Sparsely populated and untouched The Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua is divided into the North and South Autonomous Regions. The largest and perhaps the most influential city in the Caribbean is Bluefields. Bluefields is the capital of the Southern Autonomous Region. This area is very diverse, and its inhabitants are mostly Mestizo, Afro-descendant Creoles, and indigenous Miskitu, along with smaller communities of Garifuna, whites, Chinese, Mayangnas, Ulwas, and Ramas.
Bluefields serves as Nicaragua’s main Caribbean port city, exporting products such as hardwood, seafood, shrimp and lobster. Additionally, Bluefields is home to 2 universities. The city was destroyed by a hurricane in 1988 but was then rebuilt. Bluefields is a city rich in culture and tradition and is well known for its Creole culture, distinctive music, colorful dances and delicious cuisine.
Bluefields is difficult to reach from the western part of Nicaragua. There is a dirt road to Bluefields but the bus service is irregular. Most people arrive to Bluefields by either domestic plane or boat.
Located about 70 kilometers off the coast of Bluefields is Nicaragua’s true gem; the Corn Islands. Comprised of two small islands, the mesmerizing islands house brightly colored cabins, crystalline waters, gorgeous bays, and dense jungles. The natural beauty of the islands is indescribable and attracts visitors from all around the world. More people opt to visit Little Corn Island as it can feel like taking a step back in time. Known for its diverse and stunning dive sites, this island is an incredible place for tourists to reconnect with nature.
Connection to the Sea
The food on the islands is mouth-watering. Creole population in the area demand fresh seafood, lobster, shrimp and various types of fish. The vivid coral reefs of the Corn Island attract snorkelers and divers interested in spotting various marine life, such as Barracudas, nurse sharks, hammerhead sharks, green sea turtles, and spotted eagle rays. The Corn Islands are also the perfect place to relax and unwind on the pristine beaches while admiring the enchanting natural beauty of the area.
Where chaos meets magnetic charm, you will find Managua. Located on the southwestern shore of Lake Managua, the city of Managua is the country’s largest and capital city. Managua became the country’s capital city in 1857 after Granada was destroyed by a mercenary army led by William Walker. Previous to that, the capital had alternated between Granada and Leon. Since the 1990’s. Managua has seen a resurgence after years of civil war and also a devastating earthquake in 1972.
New governmental buildings, galleries, museums, and wide avenues have reanimated part of Managua’s downtown former liveliness. Managua definitely has one of the more vibrant nightlife scenes of Nicaragua. It is a lively district, home to a wide variety of restaurants and nightclubs.