First Time Backpacking in Nicaragua
13 October, 2016
Backpacking in Nicaragua is a superb choice for travellers who are new to backpacking and also the more established drifter. The (mainly) Spanish – speaking Central American country, Nicaragua, was voted eighth happiest country, it’s a nice place to be! It has had a raw past with centuries of civil war and dictatorships and Nicaraguans are tired of it but on the forefront, you would never know. Like the fruits that grow on the trees, the sunsets that fire up the sky, and those pesky volcanoes – Nicaragua is colourful, and hot right now! Here’s everything you need to know before you go.
Backpacking in Nicaragua Itinerary
Nicaragua is sandwiched between Honduras, on top, and Costa Rica on the bottom. Managua (Man-ahg-oo-ah) is the Nicaragua capital and largest city. This is the city, which gets less attention from backpackers, many ‘get in and get out’ to move on to other areas. Slightly north from Managua (2.5 hours by bus) you will find the liberal university town, León, which is the gateway to the infamous tourist attraction – volcano boarding (you bomb down the volcano, Cerro Negro). Hiking up an active volcano and sledging down it is one of the main things Nicaragua is best known for! If you want to find our more about Nicaragua’s history, there is a revolution tour which is worth checking out in León.
Are you brave enough to volcano board?
Thirty minutes by chicken bus from León is paradise which takes the shape of a beach town called Las Peñitas (Pen-yiet-ahs)! North of León is the coffee and tobacco region. Popular stops include Matagalpa and Estelí (Es-tel-lee), both which can be reached by microbus (approximately 2.5 hours from Managua). Somoto Canyon day trips can be organised from both towns. Somoto itself is a little on the quiet side (we opted for a slightly more bustling Estelí after reading Nicaragua travel tips online).
Somoto Canyon – hike, jump, swim / drown
On the east side of Nicaragua lies the Caribbean with its turquoise water and sandy beaches. Most notable stops include the Corn Islands and Pearl Lagoon. The east of the country can be easily reached by air via La Costeña (Managua to Big Corn, 1 – 2 hours flight which leaves 2 – 3 times per day. Book a return ticket to save money).
Corn Islands | Little Corn by Don’t Forget to Move
There is also the option of an overland trip via bus (express or chicken – see below) and then boat. This journey takes up to three days. 13 Costa Ricans died when a boat capsized while we were in Nicaragua, scary. Listen to the advice of the navy and do not get on a boat if you feel the weather is unpredictable. This would never happen at San Jorge (port for Ometepe) locals tell us, the coast guard are very strict on that side of the country apparently.
The road less travelled is situated in the south / south east of Nicaragua – San Juan Del Norte (limited boats from San Carlos). During our five weeks travelling around Nicaragua we only met one travelling couple who were considering visiting this area. Let me know if you make it!
South of Managua is the main gringo trail. It starts at the modern, European feeling city of Granada. Granada has lots of foreigner friendly restaurants (although Craig did get food poisoning from a local breakfast joint) and many gyms for those feeling the backpacking belly taking over! You’ll find lots of expats too. Laguna de Apoyo is a popular day trip from Granada.
Granada Cathedral – Sightseeing while backpacking in Nicaragua
South of Granada is Ometepe (Ohm-eh-t-heh-peh), the figure of eight shaped island, which houses two dormant volcanoes, Conception and Maderas. Ometepe is a hotbed for nature; natural swimming pools, waterfalls, fincas, and is reached by ferry from the port, San Jorge (Hohr-hey) via the town of Rivas (Ree-vahs).
Cool rider – bike hire is recommended on Ometepe
Back on the mainland and heading South to Costa Rica is the party town San Juan Del Sur (Sahn – Wahn- Del – Soor), surfer’s haven but close to North American prices. This is where you will find the most popular Nicaragua beaches but be warned, accommodation is often a bus ride away and you often have to pay to enter the beach. Don’t forget your $5 USD exit fee when crossing the border to Costa Rica!
Nicaragua: Length of Stay?
How long should I stay in Nicaragua? Good question and not one I can answer easily for you. We met backpackers on a two month Central America trip who were spending three weeks in Nicaragua (most of whom absolutely loved Guatemala by the way so something to consider when planning a trip to Central America – check out Will at The Broke Backpacker’s backpacking in Guatemala guide). We also hung out with honeymooners who were lazing on the beach for one week. Then there are expats who are volunteering in León or Granada for months to teach English to young people. Not to forget our British tattooist who has lived in Nicaragua for decades.
Our Backpacking Nicaragua Route
- Managua: 1 night
- Las Peñitas: 5 weeks (just over) with weekends in Leòn
- Managua: 1 night
- Estelí: 2 nights (day trip to Somoto Canyon)
- Ometepe: 4 nights (2 nights on Moyogalpa and 2 nights on Merida)
- Granada: 7 nights
As you can see, we never made it to the Corn Islands, which is a sin but by this point (month 11 of our 17 month long – term travel trip) we were constantly fighting with travel burnout so chose a slower paced trip to Somoto Canyon, over the Caribbean. In our defence, we had just lived on a beach for over one month and neither of us like sand! Plus, we got married in Austin, Texas the week after leaving Nicaragua, that week – long gym pass in Granada was essential!
Check out this Nicaragua map to help visualise this guide to Nicaragua.
Like our Texan friends, Nicaraguans love the grill! Typical Nicaraguan food consists of rice, beans (often called Gallo Pinto), and either pescada (fish), cerdo (pork), or pollo (chicken). You do get reis (steak) but less so. Typical tourist hotspots will charge 120 cordobas / $4.14 for this meal; you can get it as low at 40 cordobas / $1.38 if you eat with the locals (León). Street food is even cheaper! Expect grills lined up along streets, some will have a few tables. Another favourite meal in Nicaragua is tacos! Deep fat fried tortilla, rolled up and stuffed with meat then served with cabbage (main ingredients in a side salad in Nicaragua) and cream. Food in León is cheaper than Granada. Nicaraguan ‘corner shops’ are called pulpería (Poolp-oor-ee-ah), these vary in quality but you can expect to find some snacks, shampoo, and suntan lotion. Find this post useful? Why not join our newsletter and never miss a post!
Fresh fast food – rice, tortillas, and cabbage are typical Nicaraguan plate filler
Nicaragua is the new Costa Rica! You will hear that frequently during your trip and one of the main reasons travellers are flocking to Nicaragua is because it is cheap! Avoid the big supermarkets, dine with the locals, stay clear of spirits, and your dime will stretch far (say goodbye to Costa Rican prices!)
Cordobas (NIO) is the main currency in Nicaragua. Check here for the current rate. Most cities have ATMs, smaller towns such as Las Peñitas and Little Corn do not. We found BAC (red and white) ATMs to be the best regarding no charges for our British debit cards (see this post for our recommended credit cards for travel). Contrary to belief, Ometepe does have banks.
American dollars do circulate in Nicaragua, change is often given in cordobas and the exchange rate is at the hands of the hotel / restaurant owner! You will see many tours advertised in dollars, you should be able to pay in both. Men with wads of cash stand on the street corners of most cities and greet you from the bus at the border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica.
Personally, I try to avoid any situation where I need to use these types of exchanges, for obvious reasons – the exchange is not a good deal. Check out this post for our Nicaragua backpacking budget.
Backpacking in Nicaragua on a budget – fácil
Transport in Nicaragua
Nicaragua is impressively connected via taxis and buses. For shorter journeys opt for the local chicken buses. These are big American school buses, which are often painted in bright colours and equipped with banging sound system. A ten-minute journey can take double or triple the amount of time as taxi ride because of the number of stops the bus takes.
Chicken buses – cheap, loud, and proud
For longer journeys, which are never that long unless you are taking the overland route to the Corn Islands, use the microbus. This is a small minibus that seats fifteen people plus the driver. Expect to pay 54 cordobas / $1.86 from Managua to Leon (1.5 – 2.5 hour journey) with no room for ripping you off, unlike the chicken buses on the Managua to Rivas, Ometepe, route which was one price for locals, another for backpackers. We even tried to show them the Lonely Planet guide but they still charged us and the other backpackers $15 instead of $2.50. On top of that they charged two young females an additional fee for their backpacks. Rage! Our friends who own businesses in Nicaragua were really frustrated at this. Anyway, you are on the bus now so sit back and enjoy the ride, the scenery is stunning!
Taxis in Granada and Estelí have set fees of 15 cordobas per person (at time of writing). Taxi rides in the bigger cities of León and Managua do not have set prices – always agree on a fee before you enter the taxi. Write down the agreed amount and show it to the driver. Our taxi drivers changed their minds so many times, causing a real issue at the end of one journey. Luckily our friends and owners of Hostal Monte Cristi cleared it up for us. We were strong and did not succumb.
Do remember to ask ‘para dos?’ which means for two, if you are a couple, tres if a trio etc. There are tuk – tuks but not as many as South East Asia. You’ll find horse drawn carriages in the tourist equipped city of Granada, and horse rides along the beach in Las Peñitas.
Microbuses in Nicaragua
Accommodation in Nicaragua
There’s a wide variety of types of accommodation in Nicaragua and most will vary in standard too. The majority of hotels advertise on Booking.com, many guesthouses (popular – just like hostels but quiet) and hostels are actually on Airbnb as well the likes of Hostelworld (this was a surprise to us). New to Airbnb? Use our startup code, you’ll get money off and we’ll get credit too – thank you! We volunteered for five weeks through Workaway , working and living at a small hotel on the beach stretched our budget in Nicaragua.
Nicaragua airport hotel in Managua + free dog love
Nicaraguans are very friendly! Ask a local for directions and you’ll get a street full of people helping you out. However, cat calling is a part of everyday life in Nicaragua. Machismo is rife, the only positive thing about this is that Nicaraguan men stare just as long and hard at their native counterparts as they do at foreign females.
Unfortunately, this eyeballing does not equate to loving marriages; broken homes headed by young single mums are chronically evident and it’s not a modern phenomenon, like in the western world. Bizarrely, the Catholic Church still plays a large part of many Nicaraguans’ lives. Many of the men must be praying for their sins to be forgiven as they cheat on their partners and start second family. Catcalling is renowned in Central American countries, it’s not pleasant.
Fiesta! Many Nicaraguans like to drink alcohol. The local beers are Toña (small 30 cordobas $1 / large 60 cordobas) and Viktoria (slightly cheaper). Rum is also popular! A cocktail will cost around 60 / $2 – 120 cordobas. We never went ‘clubbing’ in Nicaragua like we did in Colombia but we sure did enjoy a couple of daiquiris by the beach and beers in the city.
Las Peñitas, a piece of paradise on your Nicaragua travel guide
The best time to visit Nicaragua is the dry season months of December to February. After February, it becomes very hot and stuffy. We visited in January to March, the heat was bearable with dips in the sea or canyon, however, the city of Leòn was hard work! The north is always cooler. Naturally, the plants will begin to dry out during this season but that did not impact on the beauty of Ometepe. The best advice we were given for Ometepe was to stay on the Moyogalpa side of the island for one night and ask around about the weather forecast before planning bike rides, hikes, or kayaking. September to December is the wet season in Nicaragua, there’s a reason that the country is so lush… It rains hard. Mosquitos are rife all over the country, cover up!
Hiking the volcano, Maderas, on Ometepe
Nicaragua is a fun and cheap country to backpack around. There is enough variety between islands, cities, beaches, and canyons to prevent boredom and the Nicaraguan people are nice. They love to chat about their country (often having a moan about the Nicaragua government!) The efficient and affordable transport links make transit for backpackers easy to manage and budget for. The only tricky part is working out how long to spend in Nicaragua, the Land of Lakes and Volcanoes!