Last year I jumped on a great airfare deal and booked a two-week trip around Nicaragua. Starting in Granada, I explored Nicaragua’s colonial heritage before heading south to the beaches of San Juan del Sur (surf paradise) and then traveling back inland to the magical, volcanic Ometepe Island in the middle of Lake Nicaragua. Along the way I ate delicious food, relaxed on spectacular beaches and yes, saw more monkeys than I could count!
Nicaragua travel is a controversial topics today, with many people believing the country should be avoided to due sporadic political unrest. Personally, as I discuss in depth below, I feel that Nicaragua is a safe travel destination that is absolutely worth visiting in 2019 or 2020. With most of the (infrequent) political protests occurring in the capital city, I set out to write two Nicaragua travel itineraries that skirt the capital – one seven-day itinerary that focuses on colonial Granada and Pacific San Juan del Sur, with a quick overnight stop on the shores of a volcanic lagoon, and a second ten-day itinerary that adds in a two-night stop on breathtaking Ometepe Island.
If you’ve been thinking of traveling to Nicaragua, I recommend that you consider following one of these two routes. They’re safe, they’re easy and they are so beautiful that, like me, you’ll be talking about them for years to come!
Nicaragua Itinerary Day 1 | Arrival in Managua
I didn’t actually venture into Managua, Nicaragua. With less than two weeks to see the country, I wanted to focus more on its natural beauty than its urban environments, so I made plans to travel directly from the Managua airport to Granada, Nicaragua. I booked a scheduled shuttle service with Adelante Express, which also offers private shuttle service from Managua to Granada and San Juan del Sur. Since I was the only passenger on the scheduled shuttle, I ended up getting a private transfer for less than $20 USD. The distance is quite short (less than fifty kilometers) but the trip can take up to 75 minutes due to slow-moving traffic, and I was glad to be in an air-conditioned vehicle for the trip.
I’ve heard that there are shuttles leaving from the Managua airport that don’t require a reservation, but nobody offered me one when I arrived and I didn’t see any signage for shared transportation. If you’re on a very tight budget, you can take a public bus from the airport to Managua’s busy bus station, and then transfer to a public intercity bus to Granada. This will probably take about two and a half hours, since buses make frequent stops along the way, and there won’t be much room for your luggage.
Nicaragua Itinerary Day 2 – 3 | Granada
Granada is a charming colonial town situated on the banks of Lake Nicaragua, in the shadow of the Mombacho Volcano. You can easily explore the city center by foot in a day, but there are also some interesting excursions that made it worthwhile to include a second day in Granada in your Nicaragua itinerary.
Where to Stay in Granada
When I was in Granada, I stayed at Hotel Guardabarranco, a quaint, family-run hotel about four blocks from the city center. Hotel Guardabarranco is built in the traditional local style, with rooms on two floors around an open courtyard (where you’ll find a refreshing little pool, the breakfast area and a small lounge). The rooms are very clean and comfortable, with spacious bathrooms, air conditioning and local art. The daily breakfast service is fantastic, offering guests a choice of typical North American or Nicaraguan dishes (my favorite was always the classic Nica Breakfast).
If you’re doing your Nicaragua travel on a tighter budget I can recommend Hostal Azul in Granada. Also built around a courtyard, but with a more rustic and outdoorsy feel, Hostal Azul has a good mix of super-cheap dorm rooms and reasonably-priced private rooms (including one double with a private bathroom). The staff at the hostel were so friendly and invited me to join in a few of their social events, even though I wasn’t a guest! I’ve heard they have now partnered with a local swimming pool and gym to give guests access to the facilities, which is a major plus.
Things to Do in Granada, Nicaragua
Spend your first day in Granada simply wandering around the colonial city center, taking in the different districts, the colorful architecture and the touches of traditional Central American lifestyle. You’ll probably want to start your wandering at the Central Plaza (shown above) where the bright yellow cathedral will immediately catch your eye. You’ll also notice that each corner of the plaza is marked by a stall selling vigoron, a local specialty made from cassava, pork rinds, pickled cabbage and hot chiles. As a vegetarian I kept a very wide berth, but locals swear by this “unique” concoction!
There are other beautiful public buildings on the streets around the Central Plaza. The stairs in front of the bright white San Francisco Church are a popular hangout place for local teenagers and young adults, and I often grabbed a smoothie from one of the nearby cafes to enjoy on the stairs (with a little side of people-watching).
Beside the San Francisco Church you’ll find the San Francisco Convent Cultural Center, a miniature museum and garden highlighting the ethnic, cultural and artistic heritage of the region, along with rotating feature exhibits. There are lovely views from the gardens inside, and the exhibits are worth a quick peek.
You’ll also want to spend an hour or so wandering around the Municipal Market (Mercado Municipal), a sprawling market where you can buy everything from souvenirs to fresh produce to housewares to clothing. I’d heard that the streets around the market were popular with pickpockets, but I felt safe as I weaved between the stalls and checked out the goods for sale.
From the city center it’s quite easy to walk down to the shores of Lake Nicaragua (and you’ll pass the moody Guadalupe Church, shown above) but there isn’t much to see at the shore right in town. Instead of walking down to the lake, I’d recommend that you speak to your hotel or hostel about joining a boat trip around the Isletas, or little islands, where you’ll likely be able to spot all different kinds of birds (and maybe even some monkeys too!). Most tour operators include return transportation to and from your hotel in the price.
A second day in Granada gives you enough time to explore some of the attractions outside of the city. Masaya is a small city about twenty kilometers west of Granada (in fact, you might have passed it on your way in from the airport). Most buses to Granada will stop at the turn-off from the highway to Masaya’s city center, and there are also dedicated public buses that run right into town. Masaya isn’t particularly interesting or picturesque, but it’s one of the best places in the country for tourists who want to buy arts, crafts and souvenirs during their Nicaragua travel. The Mercado de Artesanías (Cultural Center Old Craft Market) is jam-packed with vendors selling clothing, housewares, art and even food items. It’s definitely touristy, so only visit if you’re specifically on the hunt for souvenirs.
Photo via Yellow Magpie on Flickr.
Later in the day, talk to your hotel about joining an evening tour to the Masaya Volcano. You want to arrive around sundown, as the views of the active lava flows inside the volcano are much more powerful in the dark of the night. (I’ve heard you can also visit right before sunrise, but… are you crazy?) After waiting in a queue along the highway, your car will eventually be allowed into the park. On your way up the hill you can stop at a small volcano museum (there’s a clean toilet inside!) before driving the last stretch up to the viewing platform. You can spend about twenty or thirty minutes at the top before being asked to leave so that the next visitors can enjoy the natural show too.
Recommended Restaurants in Granada, Nicaragua
- The Garden Cafe – Healthy, locally-inspired cuisine in a pretty garden atmosphere. Prices are a bit high, but the menu is expansive and flavorful. Make sure to check out their lovely gift shop and bring a book to swap at their book exchange.
- Nectar – On the main tourist street, this isn’t your typical tourist restaurant. They’ve got lots of vegetarian options, along with the city’s best fish tacos (apparently – I’m a vegetarian!) and even kombucha!
- Wok & Roll Granada – You don’t necessarily come to Nicaragua for stir-fry, but Wok & Roll had a lovely second-floor patio and lots of different stir-fry options. Prepare to be flexible as not everything on the menu will be available.
- Kathy’s Waffle House – I didn’t actually eat here because my hotel (Hotel Guardabarranco, just around the corner) had a lovely breakfast, and I was never nearby at lunch. However, I smelled the waffles here every morning when I walked by, and I’m still kicking myself for not having a second breakfast one morning!
Nicaragua Itinerary Day 4 | Laguna de Apoyo
Laguna de Apoyo is a natural volcanic lake that straddles the border between Granada and Masaya. The lake itself is a little more than six kilometers across, and it reaches depths of up to 175 meters at its center. The lake is ideal for swimming, kayaking, bird watching and even scuba diving, and if you’re on the shorter itinerary (seven days, rather than ten) this is an easy way to take in some of Nicaragua’s natural splendor without making the boat trip all the way to Ometepe Island.
There are no regular buses from Granada to the shores of Laguna de Apoyo. Instead, buses drop you off at the exit from the main highway, and you’ll have to wait for one of the infrequent passing taxis to take you the last seven kilometers to the beach clubs (I use that term in the most zen way possible – there’s no pumping techno music here!) and hotels on the lake’s far west shore. Since that is quite inconvenient (especially with luggage) I suggest asking your accommodation (at either end) to organize a direct private transfer. I do recommend that you stay by the lake for one night, as it’s a truly magical place in the quiet of the evening. A few accommodation options include:
- Casa Marimba – North of the main road, the menu at this eco-lodge is vegetarian by default (with meat on request) and there are on-site yoga and massage services.
- Casa Bella – A lovely bed and breakfast surrounded by dense foliage, this is a great place to stay if you’re hoping to see a howler monkey in the trees outside your room!
- Apoyo Lodge – Another great option for healthy travelers, the on-site restaurant here is vegan and gluten-free, and it has a waterfront yoga terrace.
- San Simian Lodge – Consisting of rustic bungalows spread throughout a lush garden, this is an affordable option for travelers who want to become one with nature, as the private bathrooms are located in the great outdoors!
Nicaragua Itinerary Day 5 – 6 | San Juan del Sur
On the wild Pacific Coast, San Juan del Sur is a classic beach town that transitioned from being a small fishing village to becoming an international surfing hot spot (much like Sayulita, Mexico). Today, San Juan del Sur has a thriving young expat community that works with locals to make this one of Central America’s most exciting destinations. There are frequent private shuttles and public buses between Granada and San Juan del Sur (though if you’re coming from Laguna de Apoyo you’ll need to backtrack to Granada to catch one).
Where to Stay in San Juan del Sur
My trip to San Juan del Sur was kind of last minute, and it happened to occur over New Years, which is one of the busiest times of the year. So, I was lucky to find any hotel room that still had availability. I lucked out and found a private room (with shared bathroom) at Moke Huhu Guest House, a collection of little rooms behind one of the town’s many surf shops. It was absolutely nothing to write home about – it was literally just a bed in a room – but it was clean, cheap and comfortable.
There are lots of alternative accommodations available in San Juan del Sur, including many hotels, hostels and guesthouses, but I do recommend that you read reviews very carefully. At the time of my visit, there were numerous recent reviews of all the “big name” or “famous” hostels (which are mostly located outside of the center), reporting that guests had been finding bed bugs in their rooms. Yes, this could happen anywhere… but that’s why you read reviews and book elsewhere!
Personally, if I was to return to San Juan del Sur, I would first try to get a room at Casa Oro Eco Hostel. I visited Casa Ora several times, and thought it seemed like an awesome spot for solo travelers. They had a spacious lobby and bar, organized lots of different activities, and coordinated transportation all over the region. While they do have cheap dorm rooms, the private rooms are also very affordably priced. As a weird bonus (for me…) there were like, six laundromats on the next street over and I found great same-day laundry service!
My next choice would be Barrio Hotel, which is adjacent to the popular Barrio Cafe. Rooms here are clean and comfortable, and the affordable rate includes a delicious breakfast in the restaurant (try the huevos rancheros!). Barrio Hotel also has a lovely rooftop terrace with some of the best views of San Juan del Sur.
For a private room at hostel prices, Estrella Beachfront Hotel is a solid option. The rooms here are simple but very large, and most have doors that open onto a terrace with breathtaking beach views. Take note that bathrooms here are shared! The Estrella Beachfront Hotel is only about twenty meters from the beach, so it’s a great choice for surfers and sunbathers.
Things to Do in San Juan del Sur
Towering above San Juan del Sur, and not shown in any photos because I was looking down, not up, there is a giant statue of Jesus Christ. Standing about 135 meters tall, the statue is surrounded by a viewing platform that is perfect for watching the sun set over the Pacific Coast. From the beach, it takes about an hour to hike up (so give yourself lots of extra time if you’re coming from town) and it costs about $2 USD to enter (the guards never have change, so don’t bring a $50 bill!).
The best surfing in San Juan del Sur is at the many beaches that dot the coastline north and south of town. Any surf shop in town can arrange equipment rental and transportation to and from these beaches, along with a lesson if required. Since I was staying in a rented room behind a surf shop, I rounded up a few travel friends and tagged along on one of their trips to Playa Maderas, a small, rugged beach with a protected cove that is great for new surfers and even just for floating around in the water. Moke Huhu Surf Shop had a little stand set up at the beach with hammocks, sun chairs and coolers for drinks, and it looked like other surf shops were also working to expand the infrastructure here. There was also a restaurant near the main entrance that served up a great plate of vegetarian nachos (more than enough for two people for lunch!).
Where Playa Maderas is small and rugged, Playa Hermosa is a never-ending stretch of soft white sand, backed by a lush tropical rainforest… and owned and operated by a private hotel. There are lots of thatched huts with beach chairs and sun loungers available for day use visitors, clean bathrooms are available on site, and there are restaurants and beach bars where you can grab lunch, beer, cocktails or a fruit smoothie.
Playa Hermosa is beautiful but it has several flaws. During high season this “eco-lodge” packs in hundreds of partiers from organized group tours, blasts music at an appalling volume (including songs with language that is definitely not PG-13!) and serves thousands of cheap drinks out of plastic cups, that end up being thrown all over the sand (how is that an eco-lodge?). As well, their shuttle service is completely unreliable, so you do need to organize your own transportation, which can be difficult as the road to the beach is not popular with local drivers. I’d recommend a visit during the shoulder season with your own pre-arranged transportation (and probably not your own personal rental car). You can also stay overnight here, but based on my experiences I wouldn’t recommend it (details are here though).
San Juan del Sur is a cool little beach town, much like San Pancho or Sayulita in Mexico. Even if you make two day trips from the city (one two Playa Maderas and one to Playa Hermosa, for example) you’ll still have two mornings or evenings free to explore the city center. Expect to find lots of independent boutiques selling trendy beachwear, street vendors selling souvenirs, fruits and vegetables, and a thriving restaurant and bar scene.
Recommended Restaurants in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua
- Barrio Cafe – Probably the best breakfast I had in Nicaragua, you’ve got to check out the huevos rancheros at Barrio Cafe. Since my guesthouse didn’t include breakfast, I came here twice for the iconic breakfast dish, served in a deep dish of spicy salsa and topped with crispy tortilla strips.
- Dale Pues – Dale Pues was super-close to my guesthouse, so I also ended up eating here twice. On my first visit I had a breakfast sandwich, which was great, and then I returned late for a veggie burger. Both meals were good, and the top-floor seats overlooking the street below are great for people-watching.
- Simon Says – With a hidden back garden, this healthy smoothie shop is great for breakfast for a light lunch. Ask for their recommendation as to the freshest, most in-season fruits for your smoothie, and if you’re really hungry, order one of their famous salads or sandwiches as well.
- San Juan del Sur Cerveceria – Also known as Nicaragua Craft Beer, this locally-owned brewery features their own craft beers on tap (yay for happy hour!) and has a short menu of fun bar food (including vegetarian options).
Nicaragua Itinerary Day 7 | Return to Managua OR Travel to Ometepe Island
If you’ve only got a week, it’s time to start heading back to Managua. Your travel options include public bus (cheap at about $5, but slow and a little uncomfortable, the public bus will drop you off at the main bus station in Managua), shared shuttle (usually door-to-door service, but more expensive at about $50) or a private transfer (which could easily cost upwards of $100). I had an overnight wait before my early morning flight, so I booked at a room at the Camino Real Managua. It’s a little pricey, but it’s clean and comfortable, with a nice swimming pool and complimentary airport shuttle.
However, if you’ve got more time, it’s time to start making the epic journey towards Ometepe Island. I have an Ometepe Island Travel Guide in another post, but I’ll focus on two days’ worth of highlights here.
To get to Ometepe Island from San Juan del Sur, you have the same three options as above. You can take a public bus, but it will only take you as far as Rivas. From there, you’ll need to take a second bus or taxi to the port of San Jorge. I’d recommend the second option – one of the shared shuttles that leave once or twice daily from San Juan del Sur and take you all the way to the San Jorge port for about $25. The last option, a private taxi to the port, would cost about $50 or $60. If your hotel can’t help you with the transportation, ask at reception at the Casa Oro Eco Hostel in SJDS.
At the port, you can purchase your ticket for the next available boat. There are two types of boats – larger ferries and smaller lanchas. Generally speaking, the ferries are considered to be safer and faster, and it’s worth a short wait for the next ferry if you’re the kind of traveler who notice safety hazards everywhere! The trip across will take between sixty and ninety minutes, and there is a chance your bag will get wet if you’re on a lancha and your bag is stored underneath (yet another reason to wait for the ferry!).
Nicaragua Itinerary Day 8 – 9 | Ometepe Island
Ometepe Island, or Isla de Ometepe, is a volcanic island situated in the middle of Lake Nicaragua. The island is made from two volcanoes (Volcan Maderas and Volcan Concepcion) that are joined by a narrow strip of land. As such, nearly all of life on Ometepe Island takes places along the island shores, which are ideal for nature-lovers of every budget and activity level.
Where to Stay on Ometepe Island
There’s a good chance that your ferry or lancha will dock in Moyogalpa, on the north end of the island. However, I suggest that for a ten-day Nicaragua travel itinerary, you skip Moyogalpa and head directly to Balgue, which is just southeast of the isthmus.
In Balgue, I stayed at La Urraca Loca Hostel. This is a lovely, European-run hostel with a small dorm room on the ground floor and two private double rooms on the upper level. The shared washroom is downstairs and somewhat outdoors, so be prepared to brush your teeth with the butterflies! The owners at La Urraca Loca can help you organize all sorts of different activities during your stay on Ometepe Island, and their homemade vegetarian breakfast is absolutely delicious!
If La Urraca Loca is full during your stay, look into a stay at Hotel Finca Magdalena, a working coffee plantation just up the hill behind La Urraca Loca, or try Ananda Guesthouse, an off-grid guesthouse where the three private rooms offer private bathrooms and views of the volcano or lake.
Things to Do on Ometepe Island
I have a huge post about all of the amazing adventure travel activities that you can do on Ometepe Island, so click on on over for more information about everything from kayaking volcanoes to kayaking with caimans.
Generally, I would recommend one day of strenuous active sightseeing. This could mean climbing one of the volcanoes (which is seriously strenuous) or just hiking up to the San Ramon waterfall. You can read about both of those on the post linked above, and the staff at La Urraca Loca hostel can help you book both trips.
On your second day, take things a little bit easier. You could do a tour of the island (transportation options include private taxi, ATV rental or just hopping on the back of a “scooter taxi!”) with a short stop for kayaking and looking for monkeys on the Rio Istan, or you could walk into the field behind the La Urraca Loca Hostel and up the hill to the coffee plantation, passing petroglyphs along the way.
For something completely relaxing, travel nine kilometers up the road from Balgue to the Ojo de Agua, a natural swimming hole that is popular with locals and tourists. It tends to fill up on weekends and holidays, so if you can visit on a weekday, go for it! Admission costs $3 and there are lots of chairs, tables and picnic areas where you can relax between dips in the refreshing water. There are also some hiking trails that looked quite interesting, though I only made it about half a kilometer in before I had to rush back to catch my ride.
Recommended Restaurants on Ometepe Island
- Nectar – The second Nectar I’ve recommended in this post (the first was back in Granada!), Nectar Cafe is located just down the road from Balgue, in Santa Cruz. This is basically a little shack beside the road with four tables under a palapa, but guys, the food here is amazing! I had the vegetarian curry, which was packed with flavor and served with rice, tortillas and a fresh salad. Highly recommended!
- Cafe Campestre – A happening spot in Balgue, Cafe Campestre has lively live music, amazing food (like my pesto pasta dish, that used fresh peanuts in place of the pine nuts) and abysmal service. Bring a book, and probably your own utensils too.
- El Pital – Chocoholic? Don’t miss a quick stop at El Pital, a beachfront chocolate factory, “superfoods magic cafe” and even hostel. You’ve got to see their “magic balls” (basically, acai bowls on a chocolate acid trip), and I’d recommend bringing home a few bars of their organic, vegan chocolate as souvenirs.
Nicaragua Itinerary Day 10 | Return to Managua
Travel in Nicaragua can be slow and unpredictable, so leave plenty of time in your plan to make it back to Managua in time for your flight. I suggest heading to the capital the day before your flight and then booking a room at the five-star Camino Real Managua. Here, you can decompress with a cold beer by the pool, or take a hot shower in your air-conditioned room, as you prepare for your next-day flight. The hotel’s complimentary shuttle can whisk you to the airport the next morning in under ten minutes. Yes, there are cheaper airport hotels (like the Best Western Las Mercedes, directly opposite the airport) but I think the Camino Real is the most comfortable place to end your Nicaragua travel itinerary.
Is it safe to travel to Nicaragua?
I traveled to Nicaragua as a solo female shortly before the country erupted into political turmoil in April 2018. At the time of my visit, I felt that Nicaragua was very safe for solo travelers and for female travelers, and I came home ready to recommend Nicaragua as a completely safe travel destination.
However, since my visit, the political situation in Nicaragua has changed. Personally, though, I would not hesitate to return to Nicaragua today. Simply put, if you follow my recommended Nicaragua travel itinerary, you are very unlikely to encounter any kind of political protests or other conflicts, as they are mainly occurring in the capital (Managua). One of the main reasons I have recommended that travelers stay at the Camino Real in Managua is because it is close to the airport and far from the center, allowing you to keep your distance from any protests that arise.
The Canadian Government’s travel advisory for Nicaragua and the United Kingdom’s travel advisory for the country both currently recommend that travelers “exercise a high degree of caution” (in the words of Canada) by avoiding political protests (even if they appear peaceful), and this itinerary should give you sufficient leeway to avoid these types of situations. My understanding is that the US still has a more restrictive travel advisory, but as a Canadian traveler that is not concerning to me.
Even though Nicaragua is safe, you’d be crazy to visit Nicaragua – or any other country – without travel insurance. I am currently insured by World Nomads travel insurance, in preparation for my upcoming eight-month backpacking adventure and feel good about the coverage that I hopefully won’t need to use!
Are you thinking about visiting Nicaragua? Let me know in the comments if you have any questions!