Where to Go in Nicaragua
The most chaotic of Central American capitals, Managua used to be a modern, cosmopolitan center until it was flattened by an earthquake in 1972, the first of a series of recent major disasters to strike the city. Today, amid an ongoing building boom and expansion of Managua’s middle class, la capital can be a fun stopover if you’re traveling through on business or pleasure. Though you could conceivably pass through Nicaragua without visiting Managua at all, its central location makes it an important transport hub and the place to go for services not available elsewhere. You can see Managua’s small cadre of attractions in half a day, but if you’re here on a weekend, consider staying to sample the vibrant nightlife.
The most colorful and comfortable of Nicaragua’s cities, Granada has been charming travelers with its red-tiled roofs, grand cathedrals, breezy lakeshore, and drowsy lifestyle since the days of the Spanish, who used the city as their first Atlantic port (via Lake Cocibolca and the Río San Juan). Today, Granada is the undisputed hub of tourism in the country, and it’s got the international cuisine and café culture to prove it. Many visitors opt to stay in Granada throughout their trip, as a tranquil base from which to explore the 365 isletas and the cloud forests of Volcán Mombacho, as well as Masaya, the Pueblos Blancos, and the Laguna de Apoyo.
Masaya and the Pueblos Blancos
Less than an hour south of the capital, Masaya and the dozens of villages that comprise the Pueblos Blancos are known for their residents’ artistry. Start with a trip to Volcán Masaya, where you can peer into Nicaragua’s fiery entrails, then visit the shaded stalls of Masaya’s craft markets. Spend a lazy afternoon driving through the Pueblos Blancos and take a dip in the Laguna de Apoyo, the country’s nicest swimming hole. You could easily devote two full days to this region, either by staying in Masaya or the Laguna, or by traveling here each day from Granada. The Pueblos make a nice diversion for those spending a longer time in Managua, as the hills are markedly cooler.
La Isla de Ometepe and Rivas
An old administrative city with a colonial history, Rivas may be worth a stop on your way to the beaches of San Juan del Sur or to Nicaragua’s crown jewel: La Isla de Ometepe, a few kilometers across Lake Cocibolca. Visible from the entire southern highway, Ometepe’s twin volcanic peaks—Concepción is hot and active, Maderas is dormant and forested—offer challenging, unique treks. Or stick to the lakeshore, enjoying island-grown coffee, lagoons, waterfalls, and the call of howler monkeys. The slopes of Maderas are home to an array of rustic, farm-based hostels, surrounded by old-growth hardwoods, petroglyphs, barnyard animals, and memorable views.
San Juan del Sur and the Southwest Coast
Nicaragua’s favorite beach town is also the most popular with foreign tourists. In addition to a crescent bay lined with barefoot restaurants and sandy bars, San Juan del Sur offers a slow-paced, tranquil setting, fresh seafood, and charming guesthouses. Go fishing and sailing, try the canopy tour, or learn surfing and Spanish. From San Juan’s bay, the Pacific coastline extends in both directions in a series of hidden beaches, hills, and wave-strewn coves. The southwest coast is an important habitat for the Paslama turtle—witnessing the hatching is breathtaking.
León and the Volcanic Lowlands
Lying at the feet of the imposing Maribio volcanoes, León and Chinandega are colonial cities in the arid lowlands of Nicaragua’s Pacific northwest. León’s importance as a political and economic center over the past four centuries has bequeathed it a rich history. Stop in at the baroque cathedral, the largest in Central America, or wander the indigenous Subtiava neighborhood, with a magnificent church of its own. Most travelers stroll León’s streets, walk up (and ride down) Cerro Negro, and then head back south or east. With a week or more, you can work your way farther northwest. In addition to beaches near León, the Northwest Coast—including remote protected areas throughout the Cosigüina Peninsula—is home to numerous small fishing villages with great morning surf and fairly empty beaches (except during Semana Santa).
Estelí and the Segovias
Nicaragua’s mountainous north is accessible by comfortable public transportation; its main city, Estelí, is only a few hours from Managua. Farther north, the peaks are some of the oldest in Central America, and they boast an unforgettable landscape with hardwood and pine forests, stony river valleys, and fields of tobacco, coffee, and corn. Spend a day at the Estanzuelas waterfall and Reserva El-Tisey, or head into the hills for a weekend in Miraflor Nature Reserve, a precious habitat for some of Nicaragua’s rarest species of birds and orchids. Press farther northward to the small towns of the Segovias—Somoto and Ocotal—dry as dust but alive with history, legends, and lore.
The Matagalpa and Jinotega Highlands
Nicaragua’s rugged interior is coffee country, where the unrushed traveler will find rough, undeveloped adventure. Green valleys and steep peaks define the landscape, and the hard-working, sometimes aloof residents define its character. Everyone’s got a war story in these mountains, and hearing them adds texture to your travels. Matagalpa has steep streets, famous steaks, and long vistas; Jinotega is the gateway to the untrodden, as most of Nicaragua’s landmass lies farther afield to the east. A guide in Matagalpa can take you trekking to summits, waterfalls, and forgotten gold mines. Spend a weekend in a rural lodge, tour coffee plantations, or participate in a village guest program for a closer look at campesino life.
Chontales and the Nicaraguan Cattle Country
The golden hillsides beyond the east shore of Lake Cocibolca fold upward into the rocky precipices of the Amerrisque Mountains, stomping grounds of the Chontal people during pre-Columbian times. Today, the area runs thick with cattle ranches that produce most of Nicaragua’s cheese and milk. To the north and east, the roads dwindle to rutted tracks and old, rural encampments. It was here that the Chontal people carved their totemlike statues, a few of which are on display in the museum in Juigalpa. Most travelers speed through on buses bound for El Rama and the Atlantic coast, but spending a night in Juigalpa or Boaco, where the wild west vibe hasn’t lost its edge, may lead you on to the area’s hot springs, petroglyphs, horseback treks, and burly hikes.
Solentiname and the Río San Juan
Life moves slowly along the broad river that drains Lake Cocibolca to the Caribbean. This gorgeous, verdant lowland is Nicaragua’s wettest, and its remoteness means you’ll spend more time and more money getting around. The Spanish fort at El Castillo has watched over river traffic since the 17th century. Along the southern shore of Cocibolca, you’ll find wildlife reserves and cultural curiosities. The Solentiname archipelago isn’t easy to get to, but you’ll be rewarded with an up-close look at the birthplace of liberation theology and a thriving colony of artists. Explore the wilds of Los Guatuzos, habitat for monkeys, birds, and amphibians, then set sail downstream for San Juan de Nicaragua, home to the bones of English pirates and more ghosts than residents.
Bluefields and the Corn Islands
The isolated Atlantic coast may as well be a country unto itself. Nicaragua’s Caribbean is tough, muddy, and quite unlike any Cancúntainted visions you may harbor. Most tourists fly straight from Managua to Big Corn, but a few hardy souls still visit Bluefields to experience Creole culture and crab soup. When you tire of Bluefields’ grittiness, board a boat for Pearl Lagoon, the coastal fishing communities, Pearl Cays, or Reserva Silvestre Greenfields. Both Big Corn Island and Little Corn Island are Caribbean gems as gorgeous below the waterline as above. There are kilometers of coral reefs, a handful of hotels, and only one dive shop on each island. Little Corn has no roads, so the only sound you hear should be the wind in the trees.
Puerto Cabezas and the Río Coco
The northeast Miskito communities of Puerto Cabezas (Bilwi), Waspám, and the Río Coco are a far removed, embattled corner of the country, where resources go more toward fighting the drug trade and recovering from natural disasters than developing tourism. Still, there are basic services in Puerto Cabezas, including decent oceanfront accommodations and low-budget tour guides to take you to nearby rivers, beaches, and Miskito communities. Even farther north, Waspám is the commercial center for villages up the Río Coco, mostly indigenous communities where Miskito is still the first language and where foreign visitors may arouse more suspicion than hospitality.
When to Go to Nicaragua
Generally speaking, the best months—when the land is still green from the rains and the days are sunny and dry—are December, January, and February. June, July, and August are nice as well, with cooler temperatures, fewer North Americans, and more European travelers. March, April, and May are the hottest, driest months, prone to pervasive dust and smoke caused by agricultural burning; September–November are the wettest months, and also hurricane season, when you can expect periodic tropical depressions to raise the rivers.
Nicaragua’s invierno (winter, or rainy season) lasts approximately May–October, and verano (summer, or dry season) lasts November–April. Rain during these months may mean just a quick shower each afternoon, or it may go on for days. As you travel east toward the Atlantic coast or down the Río San Juan, the rainy season grows longer and wetter; in these areas, the dry season sometimes lasts only a month or two (around April).
Several fiestas are worth planning your trip around: the fiestas in Diriamba around January 19, the Palo de Mayo on the Atlantic coast (throughout May), the Crab Soup Festival on Corn Island (August 27–28), and the Fiesta del Toro Venado in Masaya (last Sunday of October). The first weeks of December, when Nicaraguans celebrate the Immaculate Conception with various purísima and gritería parades, are particularly lively in Granada and León.
Before You Go to Nicaragua
Recommended: Before traveling to Nicaragua, be sure your tetanus, diphtheria, measles, mumps, rubella, and polio vaccines are up-to-date. Protection against hepatitis A and typhoid fever is also recommended for all travelers.
Excerpted from the Fifth Edition of Moon Nicaragua.