Since I heard the first time from this country I wanted to go there. Was it just the soft sound of the name Nicaragua or was it because of the great stories I heard. At the same time, I did not meet many people who have been here already. So, perhaps the unexpected gave it something magical? All that made me want to go to Nicaragua. Since ages. When I became clear that Mexico would be the next country to travel to, I realized that Nicaragua is ‘just around the corner’. That meant – Backpacking in Nicaragua! Yes, finally.
People we talked to in Mexico, mentioned that Nicaragua will be totally different than Mexico as it is the second poorest country in Central America, even though it is “close by”.
After six weeks in Mexico were sad leaving but equally eager to travel to Nicaragua. As always, the day of departure arrived soon and we took a plane from Cancun to San José and after four hours of sleep, onwards to Managua, Nicaragua’s capital.
Our travel route through Nicaragua
In the following I will describe the route we decided for. Here I will also point out what we missed and what we should not have done. As well important to note: We wanted to surf as much as possible. If that wouldn’t have been the case, the route would have most likely been a bit different and might have not focused on the Pacific side of the country but rather the picturesque Caribbean side (just google ‘little corn island’, for example).
Managua to Granada
Directly after arriving we organized a driver to Granada. We spent more money than necessary, but we have just been extremely exhausted from the flights so wanted to sit down and relax. Excited and equally tired. Our first stop, Granada.
Indeed, Granada is beautiful. The center of the town is shaped by its distinctive church. Around ‘Iglesia La Merced’ numerous restaurants and bars invite visitors to enjoy Burritos, a chilly Toña, Gallo Pinto (in a lot of different variations) or freshly grilled meat. On the central place in the city you can find some nice handcraft work such as bracelets or necklaces for great memories on your wrist. Further to the East, you will reach Lake Nicaragua, the largest lake in Central America.
Around the city, you can climb a handful of volcanos with different routes varying from two hour to entire day trips. Depending on your sight trails can be impressive and heaven on earth for photographers.
Despite its beauty, we have to say, Granada was the only place on our travel we did not feel comfortable. While strolling through markets people looked to us in a way we have never experienced before. The waiters have been unfriendly and some other occasions did not help towards improving our perception of Granada. Due to that reason, we decided to leave earlier than planned. People we’ve met or talked to in our onwards journey loved Granada and did not experience anything like us. So, I bet you’ll be luckier than we have been.
Things to do Granada: Decide for a volcano to climb and visit Isla Ometepe for a night. We heard great stories of the little island in mid of the lake but unfortunately missed it.
Granada to San Juan del Sur
You can either drive by bus or with a private driver. Busses are the significantly cheaper option and recommended if you do not have time pressure. They leave multiple times per day but as the journey takes several hours, an early start might makes sense.
Prior to our trip, we had a hard time to picture San Juan del Sur, especially where the best waves are. The city itself became in the last years as a party town and attracts many backpackers from around the world. Here you get everything what you need. Food, drinks, surfboards, clothes and cheap restaurants (recommendation: ‘La Lancha’).
Where to stay in San Juan del Sur
The main question we had whether staying close to one of the beaches or in the city makes sense. This mainly depends on what you exactly want. In the city, you are closer to bars and restaurants but dependent on bus shuttles to the beaches. These rides cost around 2.50 USD one way and leave multiple times a day and the last bus leaves shortly after sunset. Shuttles to the beaches leave at Casa Oro, a well-known and often booked hostel in the heart of the city (we’ve heard very good things about staying here).
As we did not want to party but just relax and surf we decided for the hostel Casa Maderas* close to Playa Maderas. If you plan to go to SJDS or you are looking for great waves in Nicaragua, check this in-depth article for more information. Most importantly, we loved this relaxed and calm place close to the beach. Our own apartment including a own hammock treated us very well.
Things to do in San Juan del Sur: Go surfing, get grilled fish or meat at ‘La Lancha’, go on a party off the beaten path in one of the ‘Cervecerias’.
San Juan del Sur to León
This is one of the furthest trips you can do in Nicaragua. By bus it will take up one entire day, so we shared a taxi with two other travelers and paid 30 USD per person. Four and a half hours later we arrived in Léon and strolled through the city. The church certainly is the most important sight and with its snow-white roof pretty unusual. We spend some time here to watch clouds passing by and to observe erupting volcanos faraway.
In the night, we went to a food market and enjoyed fresh Nicaraguan cuisine and have been stunned by its kitchen the first time. Most backpackers we’ve met just went to León to slide down Cerro Negro, which is unfortunate, as there is much more to see.
Things to do in León: Enjoy the view from the ‘Catedral de la Asuncíon de María de León’, volcano boarding, visit the food market at night and look for a remote place.
León to Isla Los Brasiles
We decided to enjoy the last days of our trip in a remote place, before facing the stressful urban life in Europe again. After taking a taxi, a boat and a horse carriage we arrived at the “Surfing Turtle Lodge” and spent the last four nights in a hut with a porch and a hammock at the beach. Paradise. We still bask in memories having our breakfast here or enjoying the sunset with a chilled beer.
Before coming here, we researched a lot about this place as it was our last stop of a fabulous trip. Almost all comments have been positive, some said it is too expensive as you are dependent on the kitchen. Due to its remote location, you are dependent on the kitchen, that’s correct. As soon as you aren’t able to prepare your own meals, stays tend to get more expensive, that’s correct.
As the Surfing Turtle Lodge was our last stop, we took the beach cabin (you can also get cheaper dorm rooms). In the end, we had a great time with wonderful people from all over the world.
For us, it was a great mixture of having fun with travelers and enjoy our freedom at the beach. Among that we tried Yoga for the first time in our lives. The first Yoga lessons while the sun sinks in the Pacific Ocean on your left-hand side is something you do not forget easily.
From our perspective, the owners just need to be careful that parties do not take place too often as many travelers come here to get away from it all and to enjoy their lives to the fullest.
… Then, an eight-week trip came to an end. Some gigabyte of pictures and clips wanted to be edited and we knew that we need come back to Central America soon. But here are some further handy tips for your Nicaragua trip.
Tips for Backpacking in Nicaragua
While backpacking through Nicaragua you should be aware of the fact mentioned above. Nica a very poor country with a lot of very poor people begging on the streets. Here, it might be a wise decision not to show your camera the entire time, considering that it might be worth more than a whole family earns in a year.
How to get to Nicaragua – In a cheap way
While booking flights to Mexico, it has been clear that we also wanted to see Nica, so we booked a multi-city flight from Germany to Mexico and the return flight from Managua. These flights are on average more expensive but we have been lucky with a fare from around 700€ each. At this point we knew that we will end our Mexico trip in the Yucatan peninsula but nothing more than that.
Soon we arrived in Mexico City and checked flights from Cancun to Managua, we figured out that they are costlier than expected. After comparing prices for a couple of days (including some frustration) we then found the cheapest option. Cancun – San José – Managua for round about 220 €.
Tips: Check flights before you leave or plan more time to travel by bus. They are more expensive than you might think, even though the distance is short. The rates to fly to Nicaragua can vary greatly depending on your departure airport. In Europe, Brussels and Amsterdam are a good point to start your trip, for example.
Speaking of cheap! Sunscreen is ridiculously expensive in Nicaragua, so better stock up first*.
Visa for Nicaragua
As soon as you enter the CA-4-region (Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua) you receive a 90-day visa for these countries. That means for most citizens it’s easy to immigrate in the listed countries as long your stay does not extent 90 days. More infos in our Preparations for Backpacking in Central America article.
When to go to Nicaragua
As in other Central American countries, Nicaragua has two seasons – the dry (January until June) and rainy season. Since virtually no rain fell until April plants start to dry out and the country loses its tropical flair. So, the best time to travel would be January or February.
For a consistent waist to head high swell the best time for surfing would be end of March to September. In April, waves tend to be great and uncrowded. Before deciding on specific travel dates, research depending on which waves you are looking for.
Accommodation in Nicaragua
On our trip, we always have been pleasantly surprised with our accommodation. As we were used from Mexico already, prices are higher than in Asia but you always receive something at least reasonable – A good bang for your buck!
As a rule of thumb you can find a nice dorm for 12 USD and a private room starting from 20 USD.
Transportation in Nicaragua
Once arrived in Central America you will get told new horror stories in every hostel. Due to that reason, we have been uncertain whether busses across borders are safe. You hear a lot of horror stories. It’s perhaps a bit like talking to your grandpa. You should not believe every story. In our time, we just had good experience with busses but never crossed borders by night. This would be one thing I personally would avoid. Most likely you’ll be fine but normally you find a better and more secure way.
Inside the country chicken busses are the cheapest way to get from A to B. When hopping on a bus, your backpacks normally get tied on the roof or somewhere in the back. Here they get really dirty! I was happy that my bag was covered in a cargo bag*. Collectivos are operating as well and normally departing at the estación de autobuses.
Food in Nicaragua
Prior our trip we researched a lot on a lot of topics and we often stumbled upon travelers “disappointed” by the food. Indeed, food can be dreary as Gallo Pinto (Rice and Beans) is served with almost every dish and beside some expectations not very cheap. As mentioned above, we also enjoyed great fresh barbeque on the streets of León. So, keep your eyes open and you will find something enjoyable.
Language and Communication in Nicaragua
¿Ya sabes hablar español? In Nicaragua, some basic knowledge of Spanish will help you a lot! Especially in rural areas the English language is pretty much not existent. So, it might be really (!) helpful! As Ani speaks Spanish, for us it was easy getting around and we helped many other backpackers stuck in a conversation.
Summing things up we can say that we had a great time backpacking in Nicaragua. The country is perfectly suited for surfers and as we’ve often heard considered to be the cheap alternative to Costa Rica (as prices here are exorbitant). Since our expectation has been very high, we got a bit disappointed in our first stop but then felt extremely comfortable in San Juan del Sur. Nicaragua is a laid-back country and you will learn how to settle down and relax with a coffee in a hammock. Nica, one day we will come back!
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