Nicaragua is, without question, the most controversial place I have visited, both from a tourism standpoint as well as a political one. My two week trip to the Pacific side of the country – most tourist spots are here, as well as the majority of the nation’s six million inhabitants – was truly a journey of discovery from a couple of perspectives.
First, the country has a developing tourism industry, meaning not all of the infrastructure (nice hotels, tour companies, transportation, etc…) that one would expect in Europe exists yet. It will, and when it does, this will be truly one of the burgeoning destinations in Latin America. But for now, it is a bit more roughing it than I have been used to. Secondly, Nicaragua is a dictatorship only a year removed from a violent suppression of political protest. That is also new for me, and although it was hard to openly spot while I was there, the underlying tension from that time remains.
So what can one expect as a visitor to Nicaragua? How should you plan a trip there? What is there to do? This guide will help answer those questions and more!
Be sure to click the links in this guide for deeper looks at aspects of Nicaragua from our other content.
Is Nicaragua Safe?
This is not where I normally would begin a travel guide, but it’s the first question I have been asked since planning the trip, let alone returning from it. Yes, Nicaragua is safe for tourists, as long as you don’t actively participate in political protest. (I avoided anything that even resembled a political event or demonstration.) There is petty crime, like anywhere, but violent crime is relatively rare here compared to the region. Here is my full write up about the safety situation.
This pro-government demonstration was one I avoided inside a coffee shop.
While some backpackers will come down to Nicaragua on a bus from Guatemala (bypassing El Salvador and Honduras), it is likely that you’ll fly in for a visit. There are two viable options.
First is Managua, a very small airport for a capital city. All three legacy carriers offer direct flights there (American from Miami, Delta from Atlanta, and United from Houston) and back daily. Customs are a tad bit complicated. First off, you will be asked for an address of where you’ll be staying in Nicaragua. That is a challenge since the country has no addresses. If you’re in a hotel, you can put down the name, but if you’re in an Airbnb as I was, you’ll have to explain to the customs official that you have no address because it’s an Airbnb. (Mine gave me GPS coordinates to find my way there.) Secondly, there is a tourist fee of $10 US, due in cash and only accepted in American dollars.
From the airport, you are about 15 minutes from Managua hotels, and 1-2 hours from León or Granada, the two most popular cities to visit. Surfing spots are a bit further. Taxis and private cars are easily available, as are buses, though these don’t have the best reputation for safety.
The second option is to fly into Liberia in northwestern Costa Rica, and to take a car service from there, popular with some since Southwest flies there. If you choose this option, make sure to book the trip ahead of time, since most car services are only licensed in one of the two countries, and will arrange for a transfer at the border.
Roads are of surprisingly good quality in Nicaragua compared to most of Central America. Buses are available between cities, and though cheap have had safety concerns. My recommendation is to book a private car with an English-speaking driver.
Why? Well, as a result of the political turmoil, there are many police checkpoints on the highways, and in case your car is randomly pulled over (mine never was), it would probably be helpful to have a translator since the police are notorious for not speaking English. I used Robert Ow for all of my rides, and was very pleased! Tell him I say hi!!
The Masaya volcano is a place you’ll want to see, and a private car can take you right there.
Where to Go
Managua is just a city, not especially pretty or safe, so it can be avoided unless you have a specific reason to be there, like an early flight out the next morning. Beyond that, let’s focus on the main areas for visitors.
There are two beautiful colonial cities in the country. León is 100 kilometers north of Managua and Granada is a bit southwest. Both are charming in their own right. León has a bit more culture; Granada has proximity to the Masaya volcano and Lake Nicaragua (with Ometepe Island a hub for adventure travelers).
Nicaragua is also home to some of the best surfing beaches in the world along its Pacific coast. Every beach seems to have a surfing school and a hostel or hotel, so you’ll have your pick. San Juan Del Sur is the hub for visitors to the coast, but there are a myriad of other options.
Finally, if scuba diving is your preferred activity, the Corn Islands off the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua have some great reefs, and are a popular spot to visit.
The Leon cathedral, white and glorious!
What to Do
Cultural activities are somewhat limited in Nicaragua, although there are a couple of stunning cathedrals (Leon and Granada), as well as one of the better Latin American art museums in Leon.
However, the country makes up for this vacancy with outdoor adventures galore, from gazing at lava at the Masaya Volcano (amazing!) to basically sledding down the side of a dormant volcano near Leon, something I was too scared to do. Surfing is plentiful, and lessons are cheap. Hiking is almost a mandatory activity, with a plethora of mountains of varying difficulties to choose from.
One of my favorite activities was touring a cigar factory in Granada. I don’t smoke, and likely never will, but Nicaragua is second to Cuba in cigar ratings (and closing rapidly) and this was a chance to see something I’d perhaps never again be able to. I am so glad I did! (Others enjoy touring rum factories.)
For a full list of amazing activities and other wonderful reasons to visit Nicaragua, check out this guide.
The Mombacho cigar factory in Granada makes for a wonderful visit!
Where to Stay
American hotel brands hardly exist here, and not at all outside of Managua. In fact, nice hotels are one of those things that is slow to develop at all, although there are options everywhere.
Airbnb, on the other hand, is a great way to get a feel for Nicaragua while supporting locals who desperately need the income, and rates are cheap (think $10-15 per night for a private room and bathroom). Hostels are likewise inexpensive options.
Be prepared, though, for every place outside the nice hotels not to have hot water. It is a rare commodity in the country, and one of the reasons Nicaragua might not be a perfect destination for you.
Other Useful Information
US dollars are accepted almost everywhere, and are even the preferred currency. You’ll get change in Nicaraguan cordobas, though. ATMs will give you the option of currency to withdraw.
The weather here is hot year-round, at least at lower elevations. (The mountains in the north central of the country are cooler.) Seasons are divided into dry and wet, and bugs are plentiful.
Anti-American urban art is not uncommon, which is understandable due to US interference in Nicaragua on multiple occasions. However, the attitude of the average person I met was incredibly warm.
Sandino, the symbol of the revolution, steps on Uncle Sam in this mural.
Nicaragua is indeed a controversial country, both for its political climate and for its status as a travel destination. However, for the right tourist, one more interested in adventure than comfort and culture, it might just make for the perfect getaway!
If you like this guide, check out all of our Ultimate Guides to cities and countries around the world.
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