Last Updated on April 22, 2023
Nicaragua was the first country where I really lived abroad, and it holds a special place in my heart. I gush about it to anyone who will listen, even today, years later. As I write this post, I continually turn my laptop around to show my roommate various photos of my adventures.
My travel photos from Nicaragua are always followed by a crazy story. Like the time I fell out the emergency exit of a moving chicken bus. Or the time I was almost arrested for impersonating a pregnant woman. Or the time I invented real-life Fruit Ninja game with a machete and some bananas.
I could go on. There’s a chance that I start a few too many stories with “When I lived in Nicaragua…”
Should You Visit Nicaragua?
When I plan a new trip, my thought-process starts with “Well, I could go back to Nicaragua…” This process leads me on a wandering trip down memory lane, through my photos and the Facebook profiles of traveling companions.
Why visit Nicaragua? Is it the hammocks, the beaches, the fresh fruit, the people? Or all of it. There’s something about Nicaragua that has it securely at the top of my travel list.
Is Nicaragua Safe?
The short answer is yes, Nicaragua is safe for travelers. The long answer is that every destination is a complex calculation of safety, and that includes Nicaragua. Larger cities like Managua feature more crime than the smaller, tourist-centric towns.
The Canadian government stresses that travelers be aware of the political unrest before visiting, while the UK government emphasizes the need for caution in Managua when using a taxi, or generally walking around in vulnerable situations (late at night, in unfamiliar areas, etc). The U.S. government notes that all travelers should avoid political speech.
5 Reasons to Visit Nicaragua
Here are a few of the reasons why you should consider Nicaragua for your next trip!
You Can Volcano Board on Cerro Negro
Not much beats seeing the red, bubbling lava inside the expansive Telica crater lighting up the night sky, while you inch closer to the precipitous edge in the dark. The experience easily makes the early wake-up and the day-long trek well worth it. Volcanoes fill Nicaragua, and most of them are climbable with the help of local guides.
The most popular volcano is also one of the smallest and most active: Cerro Negro. Cerro Negro translates to “black hill” in Spanish, which is exactly what you see as you drive through the tree canopy and into a clearing with a large, black hill right in the middle. Black cinders and ash from earlier eruptions cover Cerro Negro’s slopes.
This ash gives the volcano its distinct look, and lends itself to a new, growing adventure sport in Nicaragua: Volcano Boarding. Hikers sit on plywood-type toboggans and ride down the black-sand sides of Cerro Negro—you can also stand snowboard-style if you prefer.
Many tour companies go to Cerro Negro, Telica, and a number of other volcanoes. My personal favorite is Quetzaltrekkers, a tour company ever responsible traveler visiting Nicaragua should know about. But I spent a lot of my time in Nicaragua working with this organization and its partners, so I may be a little biased.
Quetzaltrekkers is an awesome, volunteer-run nonprofit trekking company. It offers a great place to volunteer in Nicaragua, and it’s also a great trekking agency. It’s well priced too! So responsible travelers can use this social enterprise in Nicaragua, and still feel like their getting a good deal and a great tour.
All profits from Quetzaltrekkers hikes in Nicaragua go toward locally run children’s projects in and around Leon. This organization is an excellent example of voluntourism done right. If you’re in the area, look them up!
Fun Fact: Check out this record-breaking trip by Eric Barone down the slopes of Cerro Negro on his bike. And then check out a video of his first attempt to see why you should stick to Volcano Boarding and not Volcano Biking!
It’s Central America’s Best Kept Secret
Nicaragua is up-and-coming on the tourist circuit, but it hasn’t quite arrived yet. It’s been a staple on the backpacker circuit for years, but it’s recently gaining recognition from other types of travelers as well.
The vibe is quite similar to Costa Rica, but without the English-speaking, luxury resorts, and high prices. Nicaragua is a little more low-key. Prices are modest and hotels generally have about 15-20 rooms max, making each stay more intimate.
Nicaragua is also home to Flor de Cana, a top-shelf rum that pairs great with Coke (which is colloquially referred to as a Nica Libre). It’s cheaper to buy a bottle of rum and ship it to Europe than it is to buy the same bottle at a liquor store in France.
Nicaragua also boasts cigars that are second only to Cuba. I don’t smoke, but I’m told they’re pretty good. My U.S. friends love when I return to Nicaragua. They all quickly put in their requests for rum, cigars, and hammocks for me to carry home.
There’s a Slice of Paradise for Every Type of Traveler
Nicaragua has something for everyone. You can lie in a hammock all day, or you can climb a volcano.
Like the beach? Spend time snorkeling in the picturesque Corn Islands, or go surfing in the Pacific Ocean.
Prefer cool weather? Esteli has cool weather, rain forests, coffee plantations, and home stays ideal for any responsible traveler in Nicarauga.
More into Nicaragua’s past? Rio San Juan is chock full of history, including disputed territories and cool forts.
There’s no end to the variety of things to do in Nicaragua. Relax on Ometepe, or jump from the edge of a canyon in Somoto into the crystal clear water below. Admire the colorful, colonial buildings and horse-drawn carriages in Granada, or enjoy Leon‘s museums, universities, and vibrant nightlife.
Take Your Pick of Incredible Beaches
Nicaragua is full of beaches, and each has its own characteristics and quirks. The country’s East Coast borders the Caribbean and it is widely undeveloped, but just off the coast lies a little piece of paradise known as Corn Islands.
On Nicaragua’s picturesque Corn Islands, give in to the relaxing lifestyle and enjoy being surrounded by blue water, white sand, and coconut-filled seafood dishes.
Most hotels are clusters of small cottages dotted along the shoreline, and the Corn Islands have a completely different vibe than the rest of the country.
About five years ago, the Corn Islands boasted having the cheapest dive certification worldwide. That may not longer be the case, but either way, it’s incredibly cheap to dive there. This is one of the cases where you get more than what you’ve paid for—diving in the Corn Islands is top-notch.
The West Coast borders the Pacific Ocean, which has stronger currents ideal for surfing and darker, volcanic sand. The ocean temperature feels like bath water, but the waves are quite strong along the shore. Once you make it out past the breaking point, float in bliss to the rise and fall of the swells.
San Juan del Sur in the southern corner of the country is a backpacker haven where the parties never end.
Further north, smaller beaches are scattered along the coast, like Popoyo, Jiquilillo and Las Penitas. Each of these beaches are adjacent to small fishing villages and offer a laid-back lifestyle with varying types of accommodation.
Nicaragua is Ideal for a Long-Term Visit
Nicaragua is an easy place to volunteer, work, travel responsibly, and to just live for an extended period. It’s currently (and has been for a while) referred to as among the safer country in Central America.
Cities are filled with diverse volunteering opportunities, from teaching in schools to guiding volcano treks. Learning Spanish is also quite easy; one-hour lessons generally cost around $3-$5 USD. Citizens of most countries receive a 3-month visa upon arrival, but you can extend your visas indefinitely by taking a bus to the Costa Rican border, walking across, and walking back five minutes later.
The cost of living in Nicaragua is also quite cheap. In a big city like Leon or Granada, it’s easy to find an apartment for $100/month (and cheaper in other areas). A bottle of local beer costs about $1.50 USD, and a meal from a street vendor is between $1 – $2 USD.
Why Visit Nicaragua Now?
The country has a vibrant culture and a lot of responsible travel opportunities allowing visitors to get involved in the local communities through either volunteering or by supporting a range of truly great social enterprises.
As tourism grows and more people discover the beauty of Nicaragua, vacant beaches will give way to large resorts and the quaint colonial cities will become Westernized. Since 2015, China has flirted with the ideal of building a canal across the country—a very controversial plan. Chances are it will die before it even begins, like the last time, but who knows.
Given the popularity of nearby countries like Costa Rica, there’s a strong chance Nicaragua will change rapidly over the coming decade. And much of that will be for the positive, but Nicaragua will change too—for responsible travelers looking for an off-the-beaten path destination in Central America, I’d definitely recommend making it Nicaragua.
Cindy is a traveler with an insatiable urge to immerse herself in other cultures. She is currently working on a project providing solar lights (among other things) to urban slums in Bangalore, India. Follow her adventures at Casilocal.
Essential Traveling Planning Resources
Booking.com: Essentially the only hotel booking site that I use in the region as it has the widest and most affordable selection in Southeast Asia.
Rome2Rio: Super handy to assess the full range of transport options between two cities—shows everything from flights to trains, buses, minibuses, and more.
Expedia: Best site, hands down, for low-cost flights in the region.
IMG Global: A travel insurance option I’ve used for well over a decade and recommend for many other travelers.