6 Of The Best Places To Visit In Nicaragua

Nicaragua, the biggest country in Central America, is one of the most culturally and geographically diverse countries in the world. Its vibrant political and social history paired with its volcanic topography make for some of the most exciting natural sites as well as spirited art, architecture, and historical towns and cities. A person could spend years in Nicaragua without having the time to see everything that it has to offer a traveler. In my opinion, as a person who has only been traveling the country for four months, these are six must-do’s in the land of lakes and volcanoes.

1. Leon is my favorite city in Nicaragua, and possibly one of my favorites in the world. It is the second largest city in Nicaragua (second to the capital city, Managua). Leon was the capital city of Nicaragua until 1857, and has been a hotspot for the political revolution of the Sandinistas for many years. The story of the revolution is depicted in colorful graffiti and murals all over the city walls. If you have any interest in the vivacious history of the revolution, I recommend visiting the Museo Del Revolucion in the center of town.

Leon is possibly most famous for its antique churches and cathedrals that tower above the skyline and have survived centuries of volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and bombings. My favorite is the Basilica Catedral De La Asunción. This majestic, recently restored work of art is not to be missed. You can take a tour or just walk through admiring the breathtaking architecture and artwork. From the top of the cathedral, you can observe a 360 degree view of the city from which you can see five of the country’s fourteen volcanoes.

It is a fantastic cultural experience to wander through the market in central Leon. There is a bustling crowd of vendors selling everything including meat, fresh seafood, produce, local cuisine, flowers, handicraft, and household goods. The smell of street food fills the air with scents of carne asada, quesilla, and sweet local treats. Restaurants and bars of local and international influences line the busy streets of the city.

Just a bus ride outside of the city, one can experience volcano boarding at the Volcan Cerro Negro, or hiking and swimming in the remote volcano lake, Asososca. Las Penitas, a beautiful western Nicaraguan beach, is just a fifteen minute cab ride away from the heart of the city, and Playa Miramar is 30 minutes south of Leon, where you can find world class surfing.

2. Granada is one of Nicaragua’s most important cities economically and politically. It was the first Spanish settlement in the country, and It’s colorful, well preserved colonial architecture provides a vibrant ambiance to the city unlike any other place in Nicaragua. Granada is one of Nicaragua’s most modern cities as far as tourism and gastronomy are concerned, and you can find people and food from all over the world here. Granada is the birthplace of Vigoron, a national dish of Nicaragua that consists of yuca, chicharones, cabbage, and tomato on top of a plantain leaf. This savory dish can be found in the city’s world famous street food carts, or in local restaurants.

Just a short cab ride outside of the city you can visit the Islets of Granada in Lake Nicaragua. The archipelago of 365 islands were formed by the Volcan Mombacho and are rich in vegetation and bird life. Just a 15 minute ride outside of the city is the Laguna de Apoyo, a breathtaking freshwater lake formed by a volcano. Also nearby one can visit the bustling Masaya markets, The Museo De Chocolate, and The Nicaragua Butterfly Reserve.

3. Rivas/Popoyo/Gigante/San Juan Del region in the southeastern coastal area of Nicaragua is perfect for surfers and those who want to completely let loose. Due to the diverse coastline of the region, point breaks, beach breaks, reef breaks, and river mouth breaks are formed to create any kind of wave for any level of surfer. Also, due to the offshore lake effect wind, surface conditions are nearly perfect for surfing year round. Suggested surf spots include Playa Manzanillo, Colorado’s, Panga Drops, Playgrounds, Astillero, Playa Santana, and Playa Maderas.

Hostels are inexpensive and surfer friendly in the towns of San Juan Del Sur, Playa Gigante, and Popoyo, while there are a few higher end accommodations at Playa Colorado’s and Rancho Santana. If you are looking for the party scene, Sunday funday in San Juan Del Sur or the full moon party at Mag Rock in Popoyo are the places to be. If you are a surfer, or if you just enjoy the beach life, world class sunsets, and throwing back a few cocktails or local beers, this part of the country is sure to put a smile on your face.

4. Isla Ometepe is truly a natural wonder. Ometepe is an island in the middle of Lake Nicaragua formed by the volcanoes Concepcion and Maderas. There is an isthmus connecting the two volcanoes to create one island in the shape of a peanut. Ometepe is one of those breathtaking view spots that will not allow you to stop snapping photos. You will not belive your eyes when you see the views of the topography and the wildlife. You will see howler monkeys, diverse flora and fauna, and colorful tropical birds. There are Nicaragua sharks in the lake, which are a type of bull shark more adapted to live in freshwater than any other shark in the world.

The main activities on Isla Ometepe include hiking, cycling, and eating fresh, healthy food. If you are an active person who enjoys natural wonder and wildlife, this is your place in the world.

5. Esteli is the third largest city in Nicaragua located in the north region of the country. Due to its high elevation, Esteli maintains a comfortable climate all year and is home to a regionally unique genre of flora, fauna, and wildlife. Just outside of the city walls are forests of pine, oaks, and walnuts. North of the city you can visit the world renown Miraflor National Park where you can hike the cloud forest and see rivers, waterfalls, jungle and small farms. There are hardly any crowds in the park, and all entry money goes to support the local farmers and community.

Esteli, like most of Nicaragua, has witnessed a lot of political turmoil. In 1979 the city was bombed in the civil war against the Samoza government and most of its buildings were reduced to rubble. There has been a great deal of restoration over the past 37 years, but there are still some buildings that show bullet holes and other damage. Esteli is an emotional, historically educational, and naturally beautiful part of the country to visit.

6. The Corn Islands – Big Corn Island and Little Corn Island, off of the Caribbean/Atlantic coast of Nicaragua, were annexed by the country in 1894. Las Islas de Maiz contain an exotic mix of indigenous, Afro descendant, and English speaking Creole cultures. This vivacious cultural mix produces lively music and food including the dish Rondon: a coconut curry dish of seafood, chicken, and vegetables.
Big Corn Island is more built up and geared toward the resort seeking tourist, while Little Corn Island caters to more of a low-key backpacker vibe. The Islands are surrounded by crystal clear blue Caribbean water. These islands are perfect for snorkeling, scuba diving, fishing, and relaxing while taking in the colorful views.