Nicaragua, set between the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, is a Central American nation known for its dramatic terrain of lakes, volcanoes and beaches. Vast Lake Managua and the iconic strato-volcano Momotombo sit north of the capital Managua. To its south is Granada, noted for its Spanish colonial architecture and an archipelago of navigable islets rich in tropical bird life.
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NICARAGUA QUICK FACTS
- Capital: Managua
- Currency: Gold cordoba (NIO)
- Area: 130,373 km²
- Population: 6,466 million (2018)
- Language: Spanish, English
- Religion: Roman Catholic 85%, Protestant
- Electricity: 120V/60Hz (US plug)
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NICARAGUA PUBLIC HOLIDAYS
- 1 May, Labour Day
- 30 May, Mother’s Day
- 19 July, National Liberation Day
- 1 August, Fiesta Day (Santo Domingo Day)
- 14 September, San Jacinto Fight Day
- 15 September, Independence Day
- 2 November, All Souls Day
- 8 December, Immaculate Conception
Also, Semana Santa (Holy Week) from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday.
FESTIVALS IN NICARAGUA
- Carnaval Alegría por la Vida - (ealry March) The 'Joy for Life' festival is Managua’s version of Carnaval, featuring a lively parade of costumed performers, live music, food, dancing, and the crowning of a festival queen. There’s a different theme each year.
- Palo de Mayo - (late May) Bluefields celebrates fertility with a series of neighbourhood block parties leading to the bright and boisterous carnival on the last Saturday of the month. The closing Tulululu features a midnight romp through the streets, complete with brass band.
- Día de la Revolución - (19 July) You’ll understand why people still love President Daniel Ortega when you see the master work a crowd of 100,000 red-and-black-flag-waving faithful during the Day of the Revolution.
- Noche de Agüizotes - This spooky festival, held on the last Friday in October in Masaya, brings to life characters from horror stories of the colonial period with elaborate costumes. Keep an eye out for the headless priest.
- La Purísima - (first half of December) The Feast of the Immaculate Conception is celebrated throughout Nicaragua, with festivities culminating on December 8. In Managua, the celebration is particularly colourful, with massive altars to the Virgin Mary set up along the blocks of Av Bolivar leading to the lake. After dark, the avenue turns into a huge street party with food stands and live music.
BEST TIME TO VISIT NICARAGUA
Nicaragua has a tropical climate with little seasonal variation in temperature, which ranges between 21-27˚C, and two distinct rainfall seasons: a ‘wet’ season’ (May-October) and a ‘dry’ season (November-April). A dry period called the ‘Canícula’ regularly interrupts the wet season during late July and early August. From July to October the country is subject to increased rainfall intensity and strong winds resulting from its geographic location in the path of Pacific cyclones and Atlantic hurricanes. Of all the countries in Central America, Nicaragua receives the least rain. The vast stretch of land on the east side of Lake Nicaragua receives more rain, as well as the Rio San Juan along the southern border with Costa Rica.
- November to May - High season means dry weather, sunny days, but slightly bigger crowds.
- March to November - It's rainy, but green, and you get the biggest, brawniest waves for Pacific Coast surf safaris.
- September to November - Hotels are cheaper, but the tail end of hurricane season can screw up your plans.
NICARAGUA WEATHER SYNOPSIS
Nicaragua has a tropical climate with little seasonal variation in temperature, which ranges between 21-27˚C, and two distinct rainfall seasons: a ‘wet’ season’ (May-October) and a ‘dry’ season (November-April). A dry period called the ‘Canícula’ regularly interrupts the wet season during late July and early August. From July to October the country is subject to increased rainfall intensity and strong winds resulting from its geographic location in the path of Pacific cyclones and Atlantic hurricanes. El Niño Southern Oscillation fluctuations during June and August bring relatively warmer and drier or colder and wetter conditions, respectively.
NICARAGUA TOURIST SEASONS
Most destinations have different times of the year when they’re more or less popular with tourists.
Off Peak Season
SPORT & ACTIVITIES
SNOW SPORT IN NICARAGUA
HIKING & CYCLING IN NICARAGUA
The best time for outdoor activities in Nicaragua is during the dry season, from November to April, although November can still see a fair amount of rain. Hike to prehistoric petroglyphs on Nicaragua’s Isla de Ometepe, or climb a volcano, such as Volcán Mombacho or the volcanoes near León.
BEACH OPTIONS IN NICARAGUA
The beaches in Nicaragua are best enjoyed during the dry season from December to April. During this time, the beaches are more accessible and the sea is not too choppy.
SURFING IN NICARAGUA
The Pacific coast here sees the biggest waves from April to June, thanks to southern swells and offshore winds. The surf is dependable anytime between March and November, though. Again, the rain starts in May, so be prepared.
KITESURF IN NICARAGUA
The windy kitesurfing season in Nicaragua starts in November and sometimes lasts until July, although there is usually less wind from April to June. The best months are from the middle of December until the end of March.
For more details on kite surfing in Nicaragua expand this section!
HEALTH RISKS IN NICARAGUA
Be aware of possible health risks in
Yellow fever - The yellow fever virus is found in tropical and subtropical areas of Africa and South America. The virus is spread to people by the bite of an infected mosquito. There is no medicine to treat or cure an infection. To prevent getting sick from yellow fever, use insect repellent, wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants, and get vaccinated.
Zika Virus - Zika is spread mostly by the bite of an infected Aedes species mosquito. These mosquitoes bite during the day and night. Zika can be passed from a pregnant woman to her fetus. Infection during pregnancy can cause certain birth defects. There is no vaccine or medicine for Zika.
Malaria - Malaria is a serious and sometimes fatal disease caused by a parasite that commonly infects a certain type of mosquito which feeds on humans. People who get malaria are typically very sick with high fevers, shaking chills, and flu-like illness. Although malaria can be a deadly disease, illness and death from malaria can usually be prevented.
Dengue - Dengue is spread mostly by the bite of an infected Aedes species mosquito. These mosquitoes bite during the day and night. About one in four people infected with dengue will get sick. For people who get sick with dengue, symptoms can be mild or severe.
NICARAGUA TRAVEL COSTS
Given the fact that Nicaragua is the poorest country in Central America, being one of the least expensive countries to travel in region comes as no great surprise. Even the more expensive tourist areas and upscale districts of Managua are cheap compared to most parts of North America. Nicaragua is becoming a popular alternative for expats moving there from Costa Rica due to the value proposition it offers.
NICARAGUA TRAVEL TIPS
San Juan del Sur and the nearby beach towns are prime budget destinations. The outdoor attractions are free, or course, and there are plenty of hostels, cheap places to eat, and services that cater to budget travellers. If you need a guide, those are inexpensive, too (just be sure to tip).
Public transport in Nicaragua is very cheap, if not a little chaotic. Bus stations are generally located on the outskirts of towns. There are no timetables or set departure times – buses leave when they’re full. Once the bus is full – and that means PACKED – the driver will set off and a conductor will come down and collect everyone’s fares. Take care of your bags on these 'chicken busses'.
Taxis are plentiful. It’s inexpensive and convenient - you should always agree on a fare before getting into the taxi. In smaller towns there are fewer taxis and more tuk tuks (motorized three wheelers) and triciclos (bicycle rickshaws).
If you're willing to potentially suffer some 'fines' at the hand of underpaid policeman, driving in Nicaragua can be fairly pleasurable as roads are generally straight, flat and in good condition. There are also very few other cars on the road, excluding the major cities. Pedestrians, livestock, bicycles, etc. are all over the place though and care needs to be taken to have a safe driving experience in Nicaragua.
For longer distances, Nicaragua has a reasonably extensive domestic air network. Flights leave Managua to the Corn Islands, Ometepe Island, San Carlos and many remote places in the eastern expanse of the country. Flights are cheap – although luggage requirements can be strict which could affect your final price.
Nicaragua’s border with Honduras can be crossed at Las Manos, El Espino or El Guasaule. From Costa Rica, you can enter by road at Peñas Blancas or by boat via Los Chiles. From Potosí, you can hop on a small boat to El Salvador
SIGHTS & HIGHLIGHTS OF NICARAGUA
- Isla de Ometepe - Scramble to the summits for views to everywhere and beyond on this lush and lovely island.
- Corn Islands - Swim through crystal-clear Caribbean waters.
- Granada - Savour the colonial delights and spirited streets of this colourful city.
- León - Find out why the revolution wasn’t televised in the bohemian bars of this buzzing city.
- Pacific Coast - Charge the big waves and relax in chill surf towns.
- Reserva Natural Laguna de Apoyo - Swim in clear waters, or laze about in a hammock.
- Río San Juan - Board a riverboat to explore the abundant birdlife of this picturesque river.
- Matagalpa - Discover the heart of the hardworking highlands in this earthy town.
If you've got limited time in Nicaragua, a trip through the southwest is big on awesome and small on hours in the bus. Kick off your trip in charismatic Granada. Spend three nights taking in the wonderful streetscapes, and visiting the museums and churches. From here, you can head out for day trips or overnighters to the lush crater at Laguna de Apoyo, the lyrical artisan villages known as Pueblos Blancos, or to the Mombacho and Masaya volcanoes and protected wild preserves.
Next head down the highway to San Jorge, from where you'll take the ferry across to the out-of-this world Isla de Ometepe with its twin volcanoes and endless outdoor activities. From there, it's across the isthmus to the Southern Pacific Beaches. Most people begin and end their beach time in the somewhat dated international beach village of San Juan del Sur, but definitely plan on spending a night or two on the surf beaches north and south of here. If you are headed north from here, you won't want to miss a stop off in León.
Managua is the capital of Nicaragua and counts as its own region extending from the airport east of the city all the way to the west coast. This area is made up of a mixture of suburbs, countryside, and lakefront. Managua itself, is in shambles. It is chaotic and broken, poetic and mesmerizing, all at the same time. Travellers are mostly skip the city altogether – instead arranging for a quick airport transfers from nearby Granada. If you do stay a day or two, you will see that big, bad Managua probably isn't that bad! Aside from diving into the whir of a magnificent beehive of honking horns, sprawling markets, garbage and rancor, this low-rise city with improbable trees, remarkable street art and spirited monuments also gives you easy access to nearby lagoons, the nature reserve of Chocoyero-El Brujo, a smattering of fun beaches like Pochomil, and the hot springs at El Trapiche.
THE MASAYA REGION & GRANADA
This geographically rich area boasts a number of Nicaragua’s most vaunted attractions, including the spellbinding colonial town of Granada and the handicraft centre of Masaya. The area is also rich in biodiversity. Wildlife abounds on the flanks of Volcán Mombacho, and Parque Nacional Volcán Masaya is one of the country’s most visibly active craters. Just west of Granada, the Pueblos Blancos stand amid a highland coffee-growing region rich in pre-Columbian traditions. These charming towns are an excellent place to observe some of Nicaragua’s most beautiful craftwork in the making.
Only 45 minutes from Managua, Granada is the oldest colonial town on the American mainland and is a true architectural gem. Granada drips with photogenic elegance, a picture postcard at every turn. It’s no wonder many travellers use the city as a base, spending at least a day bopping along cobblestone roads from church to church in the city centre, then venturing out into the countryside for trips to nearby attractions. Sitting on the shores of Lake Nicaragua, the area not only includes the city itself, but also the Isletas – 300+ islands sitting offshore in the lake, the green forests of Mombacho Volcano and the unique crystal waters of the Laguna de Apoyo. Culturally curious travelers might consider a trip to community-tourism operations in nearby villages such as Nicaragua Libre, or out to Parque Nacional Archipiélago Zapatera, home to one of the most impressive collections of petroglyphs and statues in the country.
Packed with attractions, the southwest offers up some of Nicaragua’s hallmark vistas and adventures. Surfers have been hitting this coastline for years, drawn by perfect, uncrowded waves and chilled-back surfing encampments found to the north and south of San Juan del Sur. No trip to the southwest would be complete without a few days on Isla de Ometepe - the largest freshwater volcanic island in the world.
More location information and points of interest are available in the above map
SOUTHERN PACIFIC COAST
Southwestern Nicaragua's Pacific beaches offer amazing surf, sand and sun. To get to the Tola beaches – El Astillero down to Playa Gigante – you'll need to pass through Rivas and Tola, then head toward the beach. There is only extremely rough 4WD access on the coast between Veracruz and El Astillero. San Juan del Sur serves as the access point for the beaches between Playa Marsella in the north downward to El Ostional. Up and down the coast around San Juan del Sur, evidence of Nicaragua’s tourism boom is all over the place with high-end boutique resorts, surf camps and yoga retreats springing up. This is an area that is definitely on the rise.
This is Nicaragua at its fieriest and most passionate. The regional capital of León is – and will always be – a hotbed of intellectualism and independence. Just out of León, more than a dozen volcanic peaks wait to be climbed (or surfed). This region has some of the best beach accommodations – and best surfing – in the country. And the virgin wetlands of the Reserva Natural Isla Juan Venado are not to be missed. Further afield, you’ll find the biggest mangrove forest in Central America, awe-inspiring beauty at Reserva Natural Volcán Cosigüina and unique windows into everyday Nicaraguan life in the little towns along the way.
As Nicaragua’s other main colonial town, León is less touristic and more authentic than Granada, although that is changing as more travellers are discovering it. It’s the educational centre of the country, home of the major universities and the poet Ruben Dario, as well as the largest cathedral in Central America. Rumour has it that the cathedral is so big because it was the one scheduled for Lima, Peru, but the plans got mixed up on the ship from Spain. Whether that’s true or not is unclear. Leon has a massive cathedral, though. Outside of the city are many volcanoes and hiking opportunities, although heed warning — this area is hot. The beaches of Las Penitas and Poneloya are also only about 20 minutes away.
You’ve officially escaped Central America’s backpacker superhighway and arrived in a place where colourful quetzals nest in misty cloud forests, and Nicaragua’s best coffee and tobacco are cultivated with both capitalist zeal and collective spirit. With a little time and commitment you’ll duck into ancient, crumbling cathedrals, get pounded by countless waterfalls, explore recently discovered canyons, and pay tribute to the pirates, colonists, revolutionaries, artists and poets who were inspired by these fertile mountains and mingled with the humble, open-hearted people who’ve lived here for generations. This is the green lung of Nicaragua and the country here is rural and prosperous. The cities of Esteli and Matagalpa lie here, nestled in valleys and surrounded by coffee and tobacco, and you can find cigars as good as the ones in Cuba. This area is very little visited by foreigners, but that may be changing soon as more people discover it.
The two Caribbean regions of RAAN (the North Atlantic Autonomous Region) and RAAS (the South Atlantic Autonomous Region) make up well over 50 percent of Nicaragua and cover the heartland east of the lake to the coastal towns of Bluefields and Puerto Cabezas. This area is lawless, raw and beautiful. The potential here is amazing but it might be a while until it’s fully discovered.
In the meantime, there is also the Corn Islands – two tropical jewels out in the Caribbean Sea about 40 miles from the mainland. These islands, Big Corn and Little Corn, are reminiscent of what the Caribbean was like before the cruise ships came.
SAN CARLOS & RIO SAN JUAN
Along the southern border with Costa Rica, from Lake Nicaragua to the Caribbean Coast is the Rio San Juan, one of Central America’s most important rivers. Navigable from the sea to the lake, this river once provided the quickest way to get from the Atlantic to the Pacific and back again. Nowadays the river lazes in large arcs, surrounded by thick jungle and the ruins of colonial castles. It also provides some of the best tarpon fishing in the world. The steamy riverside town of San Carlos is a key hub for river transportation, and launchpad for a number of highly appealing attractions, including the Archipiélago de Solentiname, several wildlife reserves and the fabulously unlikely Spanish castle at El Castillo.
WHAT TO PACK FOR NICARAGUA
WHAT TO EAT IN NICARAGUA
Nicaraguan cuisine is primarily corn-based, alongside the ubiquitous rice and beans that are eaten throughout the region. Nicaraguans do not particularly like hot, spicy food and you might find varieties of different tastes for different palates is much less diverse here than in, say, Mexico. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t good eating in Nicaragua!
WHERE TO EAT IN NICARAGUA
Budget eateries – generally comedores or cafetínes, fritangas and market stalls – serve a limited range of filling dishes and set meals from US$2 to US$5. Fritangas are often situated in people’s homes or on the street in front of people’s homes where grilled and fried meats come served alongside rice, beans, and salad.
WHAT TO EAT IN NICARAGUA
Gallo pinto (mixed rice and beans) is a staple. On the coasts, you can sample wonderful seafood, while the interior has some of the best grass-fed beef in Central America. Be sure to keep an eye out for local specialties, including nacatamales (banana-leaf packed with cornmeal and other goodness), baho (steamed beef, plantains and yucca), rondón (coconut seafood stew served in the Caribbean) and quesillo (cheese and onions wrapped in a corn tortilla and topped with sour cream).
WHAT TO DRINK IN NICARAGUA
Fresh fruit juices are everywhere. Nicaragua is home to Flor de Caña, which is one of the best rums in the world. A traditional drink in Nicaragua would be a Nica Libre – rum, coke, and lemon (similar to the better known Cuba Libre). Nicaraguan local beer, Toña, and Victoria are both regarded as two of the best beers in Central America.
LGBTQ IN NICARAGUA
While consensual gay sex was recently decriminalized in Nicaragua, attitudes may take a bit longer to change. As in most of Latin America, gay and lesbian travelers will run into fewer problems if they avoid public displays of affection, and ask for two beds and then push them together. That said, lots of Nicaraguan gays and lesbians flaunt their sexuality, so you probably won’t have much difficulty figuring out the scene.
There is a small selection of gay and lesbian bars and clubs in Managua and a vaguely tolerant scene in Granada, but apart from that, it’s a pretty straight (acting) country.
WHERE TO STAY IN NICARAGUA
Most budget travellers stay in Barrio Martha Quezada, which has about 10 square blocks of fairly strollable streets, and adjacent Bolonia (though note that crime is an issue, especially after dark) – due to easy access to the Tica bus station, the neighbourhood is popular with foreigners passing through. Other options include chain hotels along the Carretera a Masaya and nearby smaller guesthouses on the suburban-feeling side streets; this area is closer to the UCA bus terminal, with frequent connections to León and Granada.
There's a huge range of sleeping options in Granada, from budget-friendly hostels and guesthouses to some of the nicest hotels in this part of Nicaragua.