GoNOMAD Nicaragua Destination Guide
By John S. Mitchell
Nicaragua is located in Central America between both the Caribbean and the Pacific Oceans.
Little-visited Nicaragua is a haven for independent travelers. This surprisingly diverse nation – the largest in Central America – harbors fine colonial cities, picturesque mountain towns, bustling handicrafts markets, smoking volcanoes, vast lakes, and miles of uncrowded beaches.
There are also budding ecotourism destinations such as Isla de Ometepe in Lake Nicaragua and the Archipiélago de Solentiname, which offer hiking, bird-watching, and ancient petroglyph sites. Despite its violent past, Nicaragua is one of the most welcoming countries in Central America.
WHEN TO GO
Nicaragua can be visited at any time of the year, but most travelers arrive during the dry season, which runs from mid-November through April. The hottest months are usually March, April, and May.
GETTING THERE AND AROUND
American Airlines, Aviateca, Continental, Iberia, and Grupo TACA all fly to Managua from the United States. There is also deluxe bus service from San José, Costa Rica, and from the other Central American capitals.
Managua is the main transportation hub. Nicaraguan buses tend to be crowded, slow, and in poor condition, so consider renting a car. Rates are very reasonable and several international car-rental companies have booths in the Hotel International in Managua. La Costeña, a domestic airlines, has flights to isolated regions such as Bluefields and the Corn Islands on Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast. Ferries on Lake Nicaragua provide service to Isla de Ometepe and the Solentiname archipelago.
BEST ATTRACTION Volcán Masaya National Park, where you can drive or hike through a moonscape of barren lava fields to the edge of the fuming 2000-foot wide crater of Masaya Volcano, the most accessible active volcano in Central America.
BEST UNUSUAL ATTRACTION The Galería de Héroes y Mártires (Gallery of Heroes and Martyrs) in León, which is filled with hundreds of haunting black and white photos of Sandinista rebels who died fighting for their cause.
BEST ACTIVITY AND GUIDE
- Climbing Concepcion and Madera Volcanoes on Isla de Ometepe.Birdwatching and hiking on the pristine Archipielago de Solentiname.Surfing and surfboarding at isolated beaches near San Juan del Sur.
- Exploring Las Isletas (hundreds of small islands in Lake Nicaragua) by launch.
Servitur (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org) next to the Hotel Alhambra in
Granada organizes tours to islands in Lake Nicaragua, including Isla de
Ometepe and the Archipielago de Solentiname.
Knowledgeable local guides can be hired at Ecoturs (Tel/fax: 459-4118), a
non-profit organization, or through the Hotel Ometepetl in Moyogalpa on
Isla de Ometepe.
The Casa Xalteva in Granada offers Spanish-language courses, volunteer opportunities, and programs on Nicaragua’s history, politics, culture, and natural environment.
- The funky Hospedaje Elizabeth in the Pacific beach town of San Juan del Sur is a clean, friendly guesthouse with a nice verandah out front. Budget.
- The attractive Hotel Europa is a favorite among visitors to León and a good place to meet other travelers. Budget to moderate.
- The comfortable Hotel Alhambra overlooks Granada’s elegant main square. Moderate to expensive.
- Shaped like a truncated Mayan pyramid, the conveniently located Hotel Intercontinental in downtown Managua caters to the needs of business travelers. Very expensive. Numerous budget and moderate hotels can be found nearby.
- The sumptuous breakfast buffet at the Hotel Intercontinental in Managua. A bit pricey but it will keep you going all day. You don’t have to be a hotel guest to dig in.
- Genuine Italian restaurants in Managua’s Martha Quezada neighborhood.
- Fresh seafood in San Juan del Sur.
BEST CULTURAL ENTERTAINMENT
The Casa de los Tres Mundos (also known as Casa de Los Leones) in Granada, a restored mansion with art galleries, a library, a pleasant cafe, plus an auditorium where concerts and other types of cultural events are held.
BEST LOCAL HAUNT Marie’s Bar in San Juan del Sur. Everyone ends up here eventually. Good food (including vegetarian dishes), music, espresso, and camaraderie.
BEST SHOPPING Masaya’s labyrinthine Mercado de Artesanías has the country’s largest selection of handicrafts. The pretty Pueblos Blancos or “White Towns” near Masaya are home to craft workshops and small, family run stores selling pottery, wooden furniture, sculptures, baskets and many other creations.
MONEY AND COMMUNICATIONS Traveler’s checks are difficult to cash outside Managua. Credomatic, a private company with branches in Managua and León, gives advances on Visa and MasterCard. Many hotels and restaurants throughout the country accept credit cards. US Dollars are the currency of choice for travelers. Nicaraguan córdobas can be very hard to exchange into other currencies.
Long distance calls can be made from Enitel offices. Card phones are becoming more common in urban areas. Internet cafés are popping up along tourist routes.
HEALTH AND SAFETY Nicaragua is a relatively safe country for travelers. However, poverty is widespread, so it is not wise to flaunt valuables, especially in downtown Managua. Driving at night is not recommended since rural highways are poorly lit, and animals as well as people wander at will. Tap water throughout the country is not safe to drink. Before leaving home, consult your doctor regarding precautions against malaria and other tropical diseases.
WARNING: Armed criminal gangs operate in remote regions of Northern Nicaragua, especially along the border with Honduras. Check travel advisories before venturing into these areas.
Nicaraguan Institute of Tourism site. General info on hotels, car rental, and other services.
Experience Nicaragua. Covers history, culture, and the economy.
Extensive info on eco travel with lots of useful links.
A Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America (Oxford University Press, 1995). Very comprehensive bird-watching guide. Nicaragua has plentiful birds, including macaws, parrots, and elusive quetzals.
Read more GoNOMAD stories about Nicaragua
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