18 Epic Places in Nicaragua You Should Visit

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Culture Trip

A friendly, welcoming all-rounder and the most diverse of all Central American countries, Nicaragua has it all: gorgeous Spanish-colonial architecture, a wealth of indigenous culture, idyllic white-sand beaches beneath swaying palms on Caribbean islands, climbable volcanoes, world-class surf beaches and huge swathes of protected jungle, home to numerous bird and animal species. Whether you’re looking to dally in handsome towns, hit the waves along the Pacific coast or get off the beaten track by staying at a coffee cooperative or venturing into virgin rainforest, the many epic places to visit in Nicaragua are bound to beguile you.

1. León

Architectural Landmark

Street lined with colourful buildings in Leon, Nicaragua
Hermes Rivera / Unsplash

There’s a palpable buzz to León, hotbed of the Sandinista revolution in the 1980s and one of the most alluring towns in Nicaragua. Maybe there’s something in the water, or perhaps it’s the somewhat dilapidated Spanish Colonial architecture, cosmopolitan dining scene, some of the finest contemporary art in Central America or the happening nightlife catering to a large student population. A standout sight is the Museo Histórico de la Revolución, devoted to those who challenged the Somoza dictatorship; you’ll be shown around by a former revolutionary who participated in the conflict.

2. Isla Ometepe

Natural Feature

Spectacular view of sunrise clouds swirling around a volcanic peak on Ometepe Island, Nicaragua
Ivana Cajina / Unsplash

You’ll see the twin peaks of the Concepción and Madera volcanoes come into view as your rickety ferry chugs its way from the port of San Jorge across the massive Lake Nicaragua – home to freshwater sharks – long before you reach the shores of the island. Both volcanoes can be climbed, but if that’s not your bag, the island has plenty of other options to offer travelers: a standard beach holiday in Santa Cruz, a hike to the namesake waterfall from the village of San Ramón, tours to ancient petroglyphs, kayaking in the mangroves of the Istiam River, kicking back at the organic fincas (farms) and ecolodges around Balgüe or exploring the remote communities on the south shore of the island via mountain bike or on horseback.

3. Masaya Volcano

Natural Feature

Beautiful view to the mountains in Masaya, Nicaragua
Gabriella Trejoss / Unsplash

Peering at bubbling lava is one of the undisputed highlights of a visit to Nicaragua. Hike the trails along the slopes of Masaya – one of the most active volcanoes in the country – during the day, then drive down to the nearby Laguna de Apoyo for a refreshing dip. For an extra special experience, visit at night, when tour buses are allowed to drive almost right up to the lip of the crater, the lake of molten magma glows a golden red and your fellow visitors appear like other-worldly apparitions between the sulfurous columns of gas rising from the crater. If you’re driving yourself, don’t forget to point your vehicle downhill in case of an emergency evacuation.

4. Granada

Natural Feature

Busy street at night in Granada, Nicaragua
Tyler Donaghy / Unsplash

One of the oldest towns in the New World, Granada is a beguiling urban enclave. There’s a languid timelessness to the narrow, centuries-old cobbled streets, the graceful Spanish Colonial mansions and churches and the clip-clopping of horse hooves around the tree-shaded central plaza that lies in the shadow of the cathedral. Base yourself in one of the best hotels in Granada, or push the boat out with a stay in a luxury hotel. Then, after you’ve learned about the pre-Columbian people of Nicaragua at the Convento y Museo San Francisco and taken part in the beans-to-bar workshop at the Museo de Chocolate, head for the Marina Cocibolca, where the land dissolves into a mass of islets dotting Lake Nicaragua, and take a boat trip into the big blue.

5. Cerro Negro and El Hoyo

Natural Feature

Volcano boarding down Volcan Cerro Negro, with the pacific ocean in the background
Ben Turnbull / Unsplash

A visit to one of the youngest active volcanoes in the world is a must for adrenaline-seekers wanting to try their hand at a unique sport and a popular day trip from León. Located in Reserva Natural Pilas, Cerro Negro came into being in 1850 and has had 23 eruptions to date. Most tour agencies in León offer three-hour guided hikes to the summit of neighboring El Hoyo, or shorter 40-minute treks up Cerro Negro, which requires stamina, a sun hat and plenty of water. One of the best things to do in Nicaragua, volcano surfing, involves donning a cool jumpsuit and shimmying down the slope of black volcanic ash using a waxed board, leaving plumes of black dust in your wake.

6. San Juan de Oriente

Architectural Landmark, Historical Landmark

This village overlooking the Masaya lagoon has been producing ceramics since before the Spanish conquest, and its artisans are internationally renowned for their craft. Whether you’re looking for decorative vases or functional crockery, you’ll find it here, exquisitely decorated and very reasonably priced. Treasures to look out for include the geometric designs of Helio Gutiérrez, the recreated pre-Columbian jaguar vessels of Gregorio Bracamonte, the cubist creations of José Ortiz and the utilitarian kitchenware of Miguel Ángel.

7. San Juan del Sur

Natural Feature

Sundown on a day of surfing in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua
Paul Biondi / Unsplash

The original surfer party town, San Juan was once frequented by Matthew McConaughey before word got out and the place got too big for its breeches. Whether you’re looking for crush-a-beer-can-against-your-forehead action with like-minded young travelers around the pool at your hostel of choice, or you’ve come with your surfboard waxed and ready to hit the breaks off nearby Playa Maderas, Playa Remanso and Playa Hermosa, you’re likely to find yourself lingering in San Juan longer than intended, enjoying the laid-back vibe, brown sugar half-moon beach and clutch of excellent restaurants and bars.

8. Somoto Canyon

Natural Feature

This isolated canyon near the Nicaragua-Honduras border is a beautiful natural attraction that many travelers sadly miss out on. It takes a bit of effort to get here via the city of Esteli, but it’s worth the trip for the hiking, swimming and canyoning that awaits. Recommended by Jack Guy.

9. Laguna de Apoyo

Natural Feature

Nicaragua is home to a huge number of volcanoes, and this one has a lake in its crater. Apoyo is an easy day trip from Managua, and you can hire kayaks or paddleboards if the feeling takes you. Recommended by Jack Guy.

Pearl Cays

A private boat tour from Pearl Lagoon on the remote east coast will carry you across the choppy waters of the open sea to this cluster of tiny Caribbean islands, all palm-shaded white sand and cerulean waters. The names – Crawl Cay, Grape Cay, Wild Cane Cay – may remind you of the islands’ past as buccaneer hideouts, and unless you choose to overnight at one of the best hotels in Nicaragua on Lime Cay, you’re destined to spend the night camping on the beach, living out your shipwreck fantasy. Conservation-minded travelers may wish to visit Crawl Cay between June and September to observe the efforts of the community-run hawksbill turtle conservation program.

Little Corn Island

From the air, Little Corn is shaped like a lamb chop, the vivid green of jungle vegetation standing out against the deep blue of the Caribbean Sea and the aquamarine shallows that fringe its white-sand beaches. Expect that you won’t be coming by air: the only way to get here is by flying to Great Corn Island from Managua, then hopping aboard a narrow panga boat for an exhilarating – and wet – journey to this tiny speck of land. It’s one of the most beautiful places to visit in Nicaragua, and the attractions consist of diving with hammerhead sharks, lazing on beaches and scrambling up to the lighthouse for epic sunset-gazing.

Bosawás Biosphere Reserve

Second only in size to the protected rainforest in Brazil, this Unesco Biosphere Reserve comprises dense jungle bisected by rivers and acts as a vital wildlife corridor for migrating species. It is home to jaguars, Baird’s tapirs, spider monkeys and over 600 of the 790 Nicaraguan bird species, including harpy eagles and resplendent quetzals. One of the best places to visit in Nicaragua, it’s a remote and difficult place to reach, but rewards you with jungle adventure and wildlife spotting opportunities. Ranger stations at Siuna and El Hormiguero can help organize guides for multi-day treks; start by making enquiries at the Bosawás office in Managua.

Río San Juan

Shadowing half of the border with Costa Rica to the south, this ribbon of water meanders through dense jungle and connects with the southern end of Lake Nicaragua. Accessed from the southern town of San Carlos – either by bus or plane from Managua – it was a popular waterway for Spanish conquistadors, indigenous traders and adventurers in search of mythical gold hoards. Today, it’s one of two access routes into the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve, where you can stay in jungle lodges along the river and go in search of jaguars, macaws and alligators.

Solentiname Archipelago

Reachable by boat from the port town of San Carlos, this scattering of 36 jungle-shrouded islands and islets in the southern half of Lake Nicaragua is a wonderfully low-key destination where you can immerse yourself in the lives of local fishers, paddling out at sunrise with binoculars to observe waterfowl or going fishing. You can also hike to see the ancient petroglyphs on Isla Mancarrón, the largest of the islands. Base yourself on Mancarrón to check out the colorful balsa-wood carvings produced by local craftspeople, view the mural by painter Róger Pérez de la Rocha in the chapel of Nuestra Señora de Solentiname and visit the artists’ cooperative on San Fernando island to take your pick of the best balsa-wood sculptures.

Jinotega & Ruta de Café

Jinotega – City of the Mists – is surrounded by mountains covered in cloud forest, and is arguably one of the most beautiful places to visit Nicaragua. A good base for hiking in primary woodlands, Jinotega is best known as the heart of the thriving coffee industry, and is a jumping-off point for visiting the coffee fincas (farms) in nearby villages that make up the Ruta de Café. This loose alliance of growers, ranging from collectives and individual subsistence farmers to coffee plantations going back several generations, has been enticing intrepid coffee drinkers to this little-visited part of north Nicaragua. The best places to sample coffee, spend the night and join in the coffee harvest include Selva Negra in Matagalpa and El Jaguar in San Rafael del Norte.

Playa Popoyo

Stuck for things to do in Nicaragua? Catch a shuttle from surfer haunt San Juan del Sur or a public bus from the bustling market town of Rivas to Playa Popoyo, a seemingly endless stretch of sand dotted with a few surfer hostels and quirky guesthouses, low-key eateries and a couple of shops catering to wave riders. Surfers come here from all over the world to hit those famous waves: a peaky reef and surf break with carvable walls that breaks over Playa Sardinas, and an off-shore beast of a wave that breaks over the outer reef – for experts only!

Las Peñitas

San Juan del Sur might be the best known surf town in Nicaragua, but it’s getting busy and expensive as a result. The relaxed fishing town is just 30 minutes by bus from Leon, surf lessons are cheap, and the vibe is a lot more laid back. Recommended by Jack Guy.

Miraflores National Park

Head to the town of Esteli in northern Nicaragua to reach this beautiful national park. You can plan one or multiple day hikes with local guides through amazing cloud forests, and you’ll see hardly any other tourists. Recommended by Jack Guy.
This is an updated rewrite of an article originally by Russell Maddicks.

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