An Ultimate Guide to Nicaragua: Everything You Need to Know
After visiting Nicaragua, we've compiled this ultimate guide to backpacking this Central American country. We've put together all the information you need to know before visiting Nicaragua such as where to stay, how much things cost, how to get around or what to see and do.
Nicaragua does not belong among countries travelers have on the top of their list of places they must visit, and we completely get it.
The competition is just too immense.
If we hadn't been traveling around South and Central America, it would have taken a long time until we would have decided to visit the largest country in Central America. But once we did, this coffee nation which had to go and still has been going through many difficult times enchanted us, and we hope one day we will have a chance to come back.
Now we know that Nicaragua has many natural and architectural attractions, and all people who decide to visit it are easily intrigued - it has beautiful colonial cities, perfect beaches or imposing volcanoes, and local people of Nicaragua are incredibly friendly and helpful.
We hope that our guide on everything you need to know before visiting Nicaragua will help you get all the answers you might have before traveling to the country!
HOW TO GET AROUND NICARAGUA
It is quite easy to get around Nicaragua, and you have several options on how to travel from one place to another.
Shuttle | Very common way how to travel from one tourist destination to another is taking a shuttle. It is usually five or six times more expensive, but it has a huge advantage over public transport that a driver will pick you up and drop you off at your hotel door. Also, the journey is straightforward as the van does not stop along the way, so the total travel time is much shorter. You can find shuttle offers everywhere around Nicaragua, and it must be reserved at least one day ahead.
Public transport | In Nicaragua, we solely traveled by public transport. If you don't travel long distances at once, you will most likely use so-called chicken buses - old American vehicles which are nor comfortable neither fast, but they are cheap. Those buses stop often, so the journey takes much longer than it should have. Be prepared that at some buses the money collector can ask you to pay another ticket for your luggage as well.
Plane | You do not need to travel by plane within Nicaragua unless you decide on visiting Corn Islands on the Carribean Coast. Although it is possible to get there via land and by taking a boat as well, it is a long and tiring journey and taking a plane is much wiser and time efficient.
Rental Car | Traveling in a rental car is not that popular here in Nicaragua as it is for example in Costa Rica, but if you like your comfort and everything well-planned, this is unquestionably the way to go. We did not hear any terrible stories about corrupted police, so we believe everything should be fine when you choose this option on how to get around.
SAFETY IN NICARAGUA
Safety in Nicaragua is nowadays concern number one for all travelers, and it is easy to see why.
When we stayed in a private apartment in Costa Rica, our host advised us not to travel to Nicaragua because it is dangerous, and he even does not visit this country himself, although part of his family lives there.
But it is always necessary to select information.
First, the majority of protests happened in the capital Managua, and we did not have any intentions to travel there.
Second, at the time of our visit protests were not very frequent anymore, and when they happened, they were prearranged with police forces around and third, tourists were never targets because protests were happening to express disappointment of Nicaragua citizens with the government.
Considering carefully all those three points, we decided to visit Nicaragua, and we are glad we did.
Of course, caution is always necessary. We watched the US government site, twitter and online forums closely for up-to-date information, and in case of any sign of worsening of the situation, we were ready to leave the country no matter how expensive it would have been.
We advise you when traveling to Nicaragua to watch the news, have a backup plan, but don't let paranoia ruin your holiday.
Nicaragua is a country with a high unemployment rate and poverty, so it is better not to make deliberately a target from yourself. It is not wise to walk drunk on the streets or wander in dim-lit streets after dark alone. Always take a taxi when coming back from a bar.
Another recommendation is not to wear expensive jewelry or show off your phone, cash or camera when not necessary to take it out.
WHAT TO PACK FOR NICARAGUA
What to pack for Nicaragua depends on in what season are you going to explore the country and whether visiting Nicaragua is a part or longer trip or not. Generally, it is hot and sunny here as overall in Central America, so pack lightly. Here are five essentials we would not leave our home without and which will make your travel experience much better.
Water Bottle | Staying hydrated is important in countries like Nicaragua. Also, if you want to reduce your plastic footprint, buying a purification filter bottle is a must.
Headband | When your face is dripping with sweat or you go volcano boarding, it is necessary to have a headband to cover your nose and mouth.
Travel Towel | When traveling on a budget, it is not always common to get a towel in a hostel, and we always pack our own, small, light and foldable one.
Quality Daypack | Nicaragua is not a destination with many multi-day hikes, so we focused on having a reliable and comfortable daypack we could use outdoors and in the cities as well.
50+ Sunscreen | Sun in Nicaragua is too strong, and you should never underestimate it. After several painful nights, we always pack a quality sunscreen with high UV.
WHEN TO VISIT NICARAGUA
Nicaragua, the same as many other Central and South American countries has two distinct seasons, wet and dry.
The best time to visit the country is during the dry season from November to April when you can expect dry conditions, sunny days and mild temperatures.
More you are getting nearer to May, temperatures get higher, and you can expect occasional rain showers mostly in the afternoons.
May to October means more rain, but it is not a norm that it rains for days in a row (it can, of course, happen though), you can enjoy sunny days as well with storms later in the day. Also, temperatures and humidity increase.
We visited Nicaragua in late March and did not have a single rainy day which was great, but at times, especially in Leon it was too hot, and the area around San Juan del Sur was way too windy.
WHAT CAN YOU EXPECT TO SEE IN NICARAGUA
We can confidently say that Nicaragua is not yet fully established as a travel destination, and even though it is still overshadowed by neighboring Costa Rica, newly discovered Panama or increasingly popular Guatemala, it should have its rightful position among Central American countries as it has a lot to offer to all types of travelers.
It is possible that after hearing the word Nicaragua, nothing specific come up into your mind, so we are here to enlighten what can you expect in terms of attractions in this exotic country.
Until our visit, we never thought of Nicaragua as a beach destination, but it changed as soon as we set foot on the Pacific coast of the country. Nicaragua has beautiful coasts, both Pacific and Carribean lined with postcard-perfect sand beaches, palm trees, and warm sea suitable for relaxing and surfing as well.
Nicaragua also has many iconic volcanoes such as Concepcion Volcano on Ometepe island where you can hike to its top, extraordinary Masaya Volcano near Granada or Cerro Negro which is known for volcano boarding only to name a few.
Colonial cities are another reason why to visit Nicaragua, especially charming Granada and vibrant Leon are places where you can spend a couple of days wandering its streets - there are not many places like this in Central America.
Last but not least, Nicaragua has rich flora and fauna - you can find mangroves and turtles nesting areas near borders with Honduras.
NICARAGUA TRAVEL ITINERARY
Planning of your perfect Nicaragua itinerary stands or falls with the time you possess to explore this country.
If your time is limited, let's say from seven to ten days, we would recommend you to stick to Pacific side of the country as there are many natural and architectural attractions and distances are not that vast. If you have some time left and your budget allows it, you can go and explore Nicaragua's shining star of the Carribean coast, Corn Islands.
To make the most of your visit, it is worth to put San Juan del Sur, Ometepe Island, Granada, and Leon on your list of places you must visit in Nicaragua.
We have written a full post aiming to help you plan your best Nicaragua itinerary, so do not forget to check it out!
HOW MUCH THINGS COST IN NICARAGUA
Nicaragua is one of the most impoverished countries in the world, and traveling here is not expensive.
That makes from Nicaragua a perfect destination for all budget travelers who can contribute to the local economy as tourism is becoming one of the most relevant industries in the country.
Food in local restaurants cost $2 - $3, so we did not find necessary to go shopping and cook in Nicaragua at all apart from fruits which we found affordable at the local markets. Of course, you will find here tourist restaurants with traditional meals where the food cost much more, but to be honest, after almost a year of traveling, $3 for rice and beans seems for us like a fair price, and we are a bit skeptical if someone can do a magic with those ingredients in a more expensive restaurant.
At the time of our visit, private rooms in hostels were pretty cheap, and we spent anything from $10 to $20 per room per night.
When traveling solo, it is not unheard of to find a bed in a dormitory for $5 or less. Nicaragua is also a perfect destination when you have a bit more money in your pocket because luxury and upscale hotels cost in this country less than usual, so you can splurge without breaking the bank.
Getting around Nicaragua is not expensive either.
It is the norm to pay around $1 for every hour of traveling on a chicken bus.
Tourist shuttles cost more, but it is a quick and efficient way how to get around. We, for example, took a shuttle from Leon to El Tunco in El Salvador, and although we paid $25 each, the van took us safely across two borders, and it took only 9 hours. This journey would have taken a lifetime when using public transport.
CUISINE IN NICARAGUA
You cannot visit Nicaragua and not try their traditional dish, Gallo Pinto.
Locals eat this food at least once a day because it is filling and contains available and affordable ingredients. We usually ate Gallo Pinto for breakfast.
It is made from rice, beans, onion, scrambled eggs, and a tortilla.
As you can see, Nicaraguan food does not differ much from meals in Central America, but maybe because we were getting nearer to the borders with Mexico, we could feel the Mexican influence in the taste of the food, so from time to time we ordered tacos or burritos which sometimes even had a small leave of green herbs such as parsley or cilantro.
ACCOMMODATION IN NICARAGUA
You don't need to worry, hostels and hotels are on the same level as in other countries as in South and Central America. It depends on your budget, but for $20 you'll be able to find a decent private room for two with breakfast in the cities, prices are a bit lower when traveling off the beaten path.
We've handpicked our three favorite places where we stayed or took a tour from during our time in Nicaragua, hope you will like them too!
Granada | El Arca de Noe - A perfect hostel with private rooms for all budget travelers sits in the center of Granada. Located in a beautiful house, the hostel has a tranquil atmosphere, the owner is super friendly and knows a lot about Granada - also, typical breakfast is included.
San Juan del Sur | Hush Maderas - An amazing place close to Maderas Beach in San Juan del Sur with an infinity pool and great cuisine.
Leon | Bigfoot Hostel - This is the most popular lodging in Leon. It is a party hostel, famous for organizing volcano boarding and shuttles around Nicaragua and Central America. Both dormitories and private rooms are available.
Alternatively, search for your accommodation via Hostelworld.
Nicaragua has its own currency, Nicaraguan cordobas, but you can also pay with US dollars basically everywhere.
The only place where you can have a problem to pay in dollars are small family-run restaurants or chicken buses - but we would not be afraid that people will not accept this currency but that they will not have change.
WHAT TO PACK
This is our quick packing list to prepare you for your travels, hikes, adventures, and water activities in Nicaragua.
Quick Tip: If you plan on surfing, we were quite surprised by how the sea was cold in March in San Juan del Sur, bring wetsuit.
Hikes, Adventures: Hiking Boots | Flip-flops for Him & for Her | Short-Sleeved T-Shirt for Him & for Her | Flannel Shirt for Him & for Her | Fleece Jacket for Him & for Her | Waterproof Jacket for Him & for Her | Multipurpose HeadWrap | Filtered Water Bottle | GoPro
Water Activities: Water Shoes for Him & for Her | Swimsuit for Him & for Her | Beach Towel | Rash Guard for Him & for Her | Wetsuit for Him & for Her | Mask & Snorkel | Sunglasses for Him & for Her | Sunscreen
TRAVEL INSURANCE - SIMPLE & FLEXIBLE
We never leave our home without travel insurance which is designed to help cover your expenses if something goes wrong on your trip. World Nomads Travel Insurance has been designed by travelers for travelers, to cover your trip essentials.
Travel smarter and safer!