Most people were pretty shocked – and a little scared – when I announced I was going to visit Nicaragua. I was asked why, what was there, was it really worth what was perceived as a safety risk. Well, after two weeks exploring much of the Pacific region of the country (more than 60% of the population lives in this third of the land area), I can safely announce that yes, there are some awesome reasons to visit Nicaragua.

For the record, there are also some compelling reasons NOT to visit.

1. Interact with a volcano or two

Nicaragua is home to nineteen different volcanoes, some active and some dormant, and the country has found some fun ways for visitors to interact with these distinctive geological features. The Masaya volcano is located between Managua and Granada, and is one of only a few volcanos in the world where visitors can gaze into the crater and see the lava lake. Tours are available from the entire region and include sunset at the top and a nighttime lava viewing. It is amazing!

For those a bit more adventurous, outside of Leon tourists can try volcano boarding. Hike up a dormant volcano with a wooden board, then go shooting down the side of the mountain riding said board, holding onto a rope strap. Those who emerge unscathed swear it is an experience like no other; those who are injured – sometimes seriously – probably have fewer positive things to say. I wasn’t brave enough to try.

Masaya volcano at night. It’s no wonder the Spanish thought it was the gateway to hell.

2. World-class surfing

If mountains aren’t your thing, the beaches of Nicaragua’s Pacific Coast are home to some of the best surfing around. In fact, surfers travel here from all over the world, and it is one of the largest tourism sectors in the country. For beginners, try visiting San Juan del Sur, where most hotels and hostels offer lessons at nearby beaches.

The beaches here are truly wonderful!

3. Rum and Cigars

While other places are better known for these commodities, Nicaragua might have the best. Flor de Cana is one of the top rated rums in the world and is manufactured right in Managua. It is sold all over, and for prices much less than a premium bottle (or shot) would go for stateside.

Nicaragua is also known for some of the best tobacco in the world, and its cigars rival those of Cuba. In Granada, the Mombacho Cigars factory can be toured, and visitors can watch each cigar be made by hand, and even try to roll their own.

I don’t smoke, but still loved the tour at Mombacho Cigars!

4. People here are nice!

Many places in the world are beautiful, or have good food and sights. However, it is the people that truly make a country. The Nicaraguan people are wonderful, in spite of being subjected to a terrible government and some lousy economic circumstances. There are more smiles here than in most places. You will feel incredibly welcome!

5. See Central American artists

León is home to one of the largest museums in all of Latin America, the Ortiz Foundation Art Center. Built into several adjoining houses, it is huge, diverse, and approximately 80% of it focuses on Central American artists, most of whom I’d never been exposed to prior. It is a must-see in this part of the country!

The Ortiz Foundation is a terrific place for art lovers.

6. Nicaragua has a fascinating history

Speaking of León, it is famous as being the first city of the Sandinista Revolution, during which communist rebels overthrew the Somoza dictatorship. (Unfortunately subsequent governments have not been any better.) A walking tour here – free although one should tip generously – talks about this history as well as the Spanish colonial era and even some of the more modern political strife as well.

7. Explore some awesome cathedrals

Nicaragua is a predominantly Catholic country, and boasts some of the most impressive cathedrals in Latin America. Leon’s is white, and the highlight is the roof, which costs $3 to visit. The domes on top are representative of the nation’s volcanos.

Meanwhile, the cathedral in Granada is colorfully painted on both the inside and outside. (Make sure to view the ceiling panels inside.) For a great view of the city, one of the towers can also be climbed.

The white facade of the central cathedral in Leon.

8. Nicaragua is a great place to enjoy classic music

This one is totally random, but American classic rock is everywhere here. Hearing U2 or Chicago blasting while I have a cup of coffee enriches the experience, and really adds to the feeling of Americans being welcome.

9. The dollar goes a very long way

Nicaragua is cheap, with the local currency, the Cordoba, currently sitting at 33 to the dollar (although US dollars are taken pretty much everywhere). A meal can cost as little as $1.50 for awesome street food, and I never spent more than about $10-12, even including a beverage. A fancy hotel in Managua can run up to $100 a night for the top of the line (the Hilton Princess), with budget accommodations being much less, and hostel dorm rooms at about $5 per night. The Masaya volcano tour was $20, a surfing lesson $30. You can spend a lot of time here for very little money.

Nicaragua might not be on most people’s radars, but there are some compelling reasons to visit. Be sure to also check out some reasons NOT to visit.

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