As a part of a new series, I will be putting out travel guides for a few of my favourite places. These are the places and trips I get asked about the most. I am not here to tell you how you should travel, but maybe this will inspire some ideas of your own! This is the Ultimate Nicaragua Travel Guide.
My first trip to Nicaragua was back in 2015 at the tail end of a two-month trip through Central America. On day 1 I got robbed and by day 3 I had landed myself a job at a beautiful hostel in San Juan Del Sur. It was at the end of this trip that I challenged myself to reach my 50th country by my 30th birthday. Now 2.5 years later back at the scene of the crime, more in love with this country than ever before. From beaches to volcanos to lush jungles and epic parties, Nicaragua has become my second home and one of my favorite countries in the world.
Located in the heart of Central America, Nicaragua is a backpacker’s dream. Stunning beaches, adrenaline pumping activities, epic booze fueled parties and no shortage of adventures all available on a budget. Sandwiched between Honduras and Costa Rica, Nicaragua grew in popularity as part of the “gringo trail”. It is now a destination popular in unto itself, with many travellers heading here for 2-4 week long adventures.
WHEN TO GO?
High/low season in Nicaragua is dictated by the weather. While rainy season runs from May to October, the slowest season coincides with the wettest months; September and October. That being said, travelling in low season is still an option. You will benefit from fewer crowds, discounts and a more local experience. But fear not, being the backpacker paradise it is, you will rarely be alone.
High season will offer the full gringo experience, with sold out hostels, massive parties and epic waves. Be sure to book hostels in advance to make sure you get into the ones you want.
HOW MUCH WILL IT COST YOU?
Backpacker Budget: $30/day
How much for…
Hostels: $5-$15/night for a dorm
Chicken Bus From Managua to Leon: 55 Cordoba ($1.80)
Sunday Funday Pool Crawl: $35 + Free Singlet, entrance to 4 venues and mixed shot on arrival.
Volcano Boarding: $30
Telica Volcano Sunset Hike: $41
Shuttle bus from San Juan Del Sur to Popoyo: $15
Beer: 40 Cordoba ($1.30)
Meal out at a restaurant: $5-$10
Tips to help you save…
Visit markets and eat street food. Most hostels will give you access to a kitchen, which can help you save big on eating out. Make sure you ask in advance and be respectful of their policies. If you are able to cook your own meals, visit local markets to buy beans, rice and produce to save big. Visit the fruit trucks that drive around beach towns and look for street food stalls in main squares of the cities.
Take Chicken Buses. While most hostels will happily organize shuttles for you at a decent price ($12-$20), but the easiest way to save is to take a chicken bus. Often colourfully painted, chicken buses are former school buses from America that get a new lease on life as choice of transport for locals. A 2+ hour trip will cost as little as $1.50 and the experience alone is worth forgoing the comfort of a shuttle. Some places are inaccessible by bus and will require a taxi or shuttle. But for the longer trips, this is the best place to save yourself some dough!
Plan your splurges. While most things can be quite affordable in Nicaragua, tours will drain your budget. Be sure to take a look ahead and plan what you want to do. Tours range from about $30-$50. Depending on what your budget is and what tours/activities you want to do, you may want to set aside this money ahead of time.
Where To Stay….
Surfing Turtle Lodge, Poneloya ($10-12/night for dorm, $20/night for bamboo hut)
Located about 20 minutes from Leon on the coast, getting to Surfing Turtle Lodge is an adventure in itself. Take a taxi or a chicken bus to the beach town of Poneloya, where a small boat will take you from Chepe’s Bar across the lagoon. From here a horse and carriage will pick you up to take you the last 15 minutes down a muddy road to this little slice of paradise. With airy open dorms, small bamboo huts and large beach front cabanas there are a variety of sleeping options. Though it has lost its party reputation from a few years ago, stunning black sand beaches, hostel front surf breaks and a turtle hatchery add to the undeniable charm. It is the perfect place to chill out for a few days.
Bigfoot Hostel, Leon ($5/night for dorm with fan $7/night for dorm with AC)
Home to the famous Bigfoot Volcano Boarding tour, this hostel is not for those who value sleep over beer. Large dorms equipped with air conditioning go for as low as $7 a night, and if fans are your thing than you can expect to pay $5. With a bar in the front and a courtyard common area around a small plunge pool this is a social butterflies paradise. Tick volcano boarding off your bucketlist with the hostels energetic and hilarious tour guide Marvin. Centrally located Bigfoot is also an ideal spot to explore Leon on foot. There are also a whole host of activities offered by the hostel from surfing trips to volcano hikes to rum tours. Bring your party pants, some ear plugs and get ready to have an epic stay.
The Backyard, Granada ($5/night for dorm with fan)
Decidedly chill and centrally located, the backyard hostel in Granada may be bare bones but it is extremely budget friendly. At $5 you get a large bunk bed in a fan room only a short walk from the town’s main square and pedestrian street. With a tattoo shop up from, large bar area with pool tables, spacious chill out zone and a pool, Backyard offers up a unique vibe.
The Barrel, Popoyo ($10/night for a dorm with fan)
It doesn’t take long to understand how the Barrel can draw you in. From the beach front digs, super clean and comfortable dorms, epic surf and owners who make you feel at home, leaving the Barrel may be the hardest part of your stay. It won’t take long for you to understand how we came to call the wonderful owner Leslie, Mama. Whether you’re in Popoyo to surf or chill, The Barrel is the perfect spot to set up shop.
Casa De Olas, San Juan Del Sur ($16/night for dorm, includes free breakfast)
Owned by the incredible Fred and Carla Batty, Casa is my second home. Located up on the hill just outside of the main town of San Juan Del Sur, Casa has been nicknamed “the vortex” with its ability to suck people in. With spacious 6 bed dorms surrounding an infinity pool overlooking the ocean, Casa is an oasis that knows how to party. You may think I am biased as a two-time former staff member, but there is a reason that it keeps drawing me back in… Don’t believe me? Go find out for yourself!
You Gotta Eat Here…
After a long day volcano boarding or the perfect pre-party base, head around the corner from Bigfoot hostel to Shawarma Leon. Located next to the main grocery store, this awesome spot offers up tasty chicken and falafel shawarmas and combos to fit a backpacker budget. Be sure to use the garlic sauce they give you in the little plastic bag!
El Burrito Loco, Granada
Impossibly cheap and ridiculously tasty this Mexican spot is a must do in Grananda! Easy to spot due to its bright purple façade, don’t let the clothes out front fool you. While they may sell awesome ladies wear off to the side, the Mexican is the main event. Quesadillas and burritos are to die for. If you like something with a kick? The Jalapeno Quesadilla was my pick and it delivered.
Panaderia Artesanal, Granada
Located on the main walking strip of restaurants, en route to the lake, this Panaderia is not hard to miss. Painted white with bright blue shutters, the intoxicating smell of fresh baked goods will lure you in early in the morning. The owner Camillo, is warm and welcoming, and the fresh baked goods are to die for. From buttery croissants to airy sourdough and a unique turmeric and onion bread, there are no wrong choices. Head here for breakfast and give the cheese and tomato omelet on sourdough a try. Fresh juices and rich coffee are also on tap.
Club Surf Popoyo, Popoyo
If you have a craving for pizza, hold out for pizza night at Club Surf in Popoyo. Offered on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday nights, the ridiculously popular pizza night is worth the wait. Thin crust wood fire oven pizza is sure to fill the post surf hole in your stomach.
Nacho Libre, SJDS
Serving up the best burgers in San Juan, this little hole in the wall is the perfect place to replenish your depleted energy stores post Sunday Funday. Offering up original creations and twists on the classics, this is the ultimate spot to cure your cravings.
Dale Pues, SJDS
This funky two story joint on the way into town, quickly became a personal post Sunday favourite. They have absolutely nailed the Classic Canadian Caesar and a menu sure to cure any hangover craving. The airy second story is the perfect spot to hide and recap the escapades from the day before.
Top Ten Things to Do in Nicaragua
The most legendary party in Central America, and an absolute must do. This all-day event starts in the morning with a pre-party at your hostel. The main event kicks off around 2pm and consists of 4 stops, amazing DJs and an unreal crowd. This is the one party you don’t want to miss. $35 will get you into this legendary party and leave you with and iconic Sunday Funday Singlets and a big old hangover.
Pioneered by the founder of Bigfoot Hostel in Leon, this adrenaline pumping tour landed at #2 on the CNN Thrill Seekers Bucketlist. While many outfits around town now offer tours, head to Bigfoot for the original. An hour-long drive out to Cerro Negro, an hour-long hike up the side of a volcano and you reach the main event. Equipped with a big wooden board, goggles and a jumpsuit the aim is to slide your way down the side of a volcano as fast as you can. You may be thinking this kind of tour can’t live up to the hype and that $30 is too steep, but let me assure you, Volcano Boarding delivers.
This little beach town on the pacific coast can be a bit of an adventure to get to. But you will be rewarded once you step out onto the kilometer long stretch of beach. Dotted with hostels and guest houses, this little slice of paradise is home to some of the best surfing in Nicaragua. If surfing isn’t your thing, it is still worth a visit to relax and soak up some of the laidback vibes.
Hike a Volcano
Not quite as well known as the epic hikes in neighboring countries, Nicaragua is home to a few jaw droppers. There are hikes to suit all skill levels. Watch the sunset on Telica in the north or spend the day trekking up the massive Concepcion on Ometepe.
Located in the heart of Leon, this stunning white cathedral offers the best views of the city and a stunning backdrop for your Instagram. Explore the blinding white rooftop while looking out over the colourful city and surrounding volcanos. Be sure to pack a pair of socks because the white roof heats up quickly in full sun and shoes are not permitted.
If you find yourself on the pacific coast of Nicaragua in September or October, head to one of the many hatcheries to see baby sea turtles make their first steps towards the ocean. Surfing Turtle Lodge in Poneloya is one of the best places to do this. With an awesome onsite hatchery, you can learn all about the endangered sea turtles they release and witness this amazing event for yourself.
With a similar colourful aesthetic to that of its larger cousin Leon, Granada is a dream. Vibrant coloured walls frame intricate wooden doors lining the cobblestone streets of this quiet city. Arguably one of the most beautiful cities in Central America, it is worth a day or two to lose yourself in this sleepy colonial gem.
Go diving on the Corn Islands
Located on the Caribbean coast and known for being the best place to dive in Nicaragua. This real-life postcard is worth the trek. Head to the smaller Little Corn Island for the true castaway vibes.
With seemingly endless beaches dotting the pacific coast, there is no shortage of epic spots to end the day. Grab an ice cold Tona and head to the beach for some of the best sunsets in Central America.
Explore the jungles on Ometepe
From the lakes edge to waterfalls hidden in the jungle to the impossibly tall volcanos, Ometepe offers endless adventures. Stay at backpacker haven Little Morgan’s and explore all that this island has to offer.
Thanks for reading!
Did this help you? Anything you think I missed? What were your Nicaragua highlights?
Leave me a comment below! I want to hear from you!