An Introduction to Travel in Nicaragua
Nicaragua is a really unique country and one I definitely recommend you consider visiting. The people, the natural landscapes, the beer, the jungles, the beaches, the cigars, the rum and the culture…it’s all something to experience but before you go, there are a few things you need to know. This article outlines a number of those things so that you have greater understanding of what it is to travel in Nicaragua before you land in Managua.
You have to look deep to see it
I love Nicaragua! But I will say that at first Nicaragua may seem pretty unremarkable when you compare it to more “epic” destinations like Rome, Colombia, Paris and Thailand. Nicaragua is natural, beautiful and authentic – therein lies it’s value to a traveler like me. Nicaragua has nothing like Machu Picchu, the Eiffel Tower or The Roman Colosseum. Nicaragua is about the people and the land. The love of nature runs deep and the people of Nicaragua today, like those of generations past, revere the land and work to preserve it. Forging a typical life in Nicaragua is both humbling and challenging. Volcanoes and earthquakes have destroyed many of the historic settlements and cities that once dotted the Nicaraguan frontier so you shouldn’t go to Nicaragua if ancient architecture and grand feats of human ingenuity are what you seek. You should go to Nicaragua if you want to see a country that has not been ruined by tourism and has not sold its soul to greed. The beauty of Nicaragua is just like that of its world class rum (Ron Flor de Caña) and cigar exports – at first it might seem ordinary, but its unique nature and amazing beauty shows up the more time you spend with it.
Nicaragua is not inexpensive, but it can be
You may be surprised, but things in Nicaragua are on par, to some degree, with prices in rural parts of the United States. A nice t-shirt from the mall will run you $25 and a nice hotel will cost you $140 or so per night. The interesting thing about prices in Nicaragua is that the local markets are much less expensive than the stores. Buy your t-shirts from the vendor stands in the town square in Granada ($6-$8) instead of in a store and you’ll save tons of cash. Food and beer is also much less expensive in Nicaragua than in the United States. A beer typically runs about 28 Cordobas (roughly $1) and the beer is good! Unlike the U.S.A., Canada and Mexico where there are hundreds of kinds of beer and most are bad, Nicaraguans really only drink a few types of beer and they’re all good. The staples are Victoria, Toña and Premium – all first rate! I prefer Victoria Clásica but will pay for any of them on any day of the week.
Córdobas or U.S. dollars, they’ll take either
But you are going to pay more if you pay with Córdobas. I recommend keeping a handy supply of dollars (fresh new bills) in your pocket for the major items you’ll buy each day – meals, shirts, souvenirs, etc. and Córdobas for things like beer and coffee, the simple things. Remember that many Latin American banks won’t accept wrinkled dollar bills so neither will vendors. Be sure you get fresh, crisp, new bills when possible. Businesses in pretty much every town in Nicaragua will also accept credit cards with a built-in chip. This will come in very handy if you don’t feel like carrying a lot of cash. Always have enough cash on you, but don’t worry if cash runs a little low they’ll take credit cards too. Nicaragua also has plenty of banks and businesses where you can find an ATM. With regard to money, Nicaragua is a very easy country to travel in. Click here to find a Córdoba to U.S. dollars calculator.
You’ll want to see…
- Selva Negra in the north is a cloud forest sanctuary where sustainable farming is used to grow everything for the farm and its visitors. It is also a coffee farm so you’ll have fresh farm-to-table coffee anytime you want it.
- León City this is the intellectual center of Nicaragua. It has some really cool architecture and is one of the country’s major cities. I had a blast here! It’s easy to explore and you can see most of what you’ll want to see in just 3-4 hours and can spend the rest of your time hanging out with locals at any of the bars or restaurants you are drawn to.
- Historic León, called León Viejo, not far from present León City sits within the wake of Momotombo, the famous volcano that covered the city under meters of volcanic ash centuries ago. Due to a series of earthquakes, the city was abandoned in 1610 and moved to León’s present location.
- Granada, the first European city on mainland America, was founded in 1524. This city is vibrant, colorful and located right on the banks of massive Lake Nicaragua. Taking up an area of over 3,000 square miles, Lake Nicaragua is the largest lake in Central America. The palm trees, Spanish architecture and vibe of the tropics can be felt in Granada which makes for a thoroughly enjoyable time. Radiating from the central town square toward the lake is a street lined with bars and restaurants that makes up the primary nightlife for most travelers to Granada.
- The Corn Islands sit off the coast of eastern Nicaragua. They are exactly what you see in your mind when you think of Caribbean islands. Crystal blue waters, swaying palm trees and beautiful temperatures make the Corn Islands a go-to place for anyone on the eastern side of Nicaragua.
- Apoyo Lagoon Natural Reserve just a few miles from Granada is a massive lake nestled inside of a dormant volcano. It’s really an easy place to reach and worth the drive so I recommend you stop by, shoot some photos and enjoy the windy heights as you down a beer in one of the little cafes along the way.
- Bosawás Biosphere Reserve is the 2nd largest rain forest in the Western Hemisphere and makes up about 15% of Nicaragua’s total land area. It is mostly unexplored and a wide array of tourism options are available from horseback riding to trekking, zip lining and boating.
- The White Villages (Los Pueblos Blancos) are villages where traditional Nicaraguan craftsmanship is alive and well. They are named Catarina, San Marcos, Diriomo, Masatepe, San Juan de Oriente, Niquinohomo, and Diría. Each of the White Villages is known for its own special thing – ceramic pottery (San Juan de Oriente), flowers and carved wooden furniture (Catarina), witch doctors/folk healers (Diriomo), cane woven rocking chairs, a soup called mondongo (tripe marinated with oranges and herbs and simmered with vegetables), and tamugas (cornmeal, meat, vegetables and herbs wrapped with banana leaves) made with sticky rice (Masatepe).
- Managua is the capital city of Nicaragua. I just like the city although there is nothing too phenomenal to see there. The people are great, and the various sections where you can go hang out, eat, drink and mingle with the locals are really fun.
- Any tour where you can’t participate are the most boring things I have ever endured in my entire life. For example, I went to a chocolate making facility but could only watch to see how things were made. Boring! There are a number of places in Nicaragua where you can make your own chocolate and those are much better to experience. Only do tours where you participate.
- Esteli – unless you love cigars. The city itself is pretty cool, it’s quaint enough, but the cigar industry is booming in Nicaragua so the city is full of gringos who flock to Esteli to buy cigars to sell in the United States. There are worse things for sure, but the presence of large groups of cigar buying North American men wandering around took away from the whole experience. Of course if you want a great cigar, put Esteli at the top of your list!
- Tours of Managua aren’t very cool. I like the city itself, there are a lot of great places to hang out and meet people, but most of old Managua was destroyed by an earthquake so the historic section is very small and the basic details of the city can be had by typing “Managua, Nicaragua” into Google and clicking on the Wikipedia link.
- Chicken buses are a cultural staple, but otherwise are a bad use of time. But if that’s all you have to get around, then I guess you have to do what you have to do. The buses are everywhere and easy to catch for a ride, but they’re much slower than simply renting a car or hiring a ride. Always negotiate your price before you hire a cab or driver service and you’ll be okay. I do enjoy seeing the buses though, they’re cool.
- Road side eateries are the worst throughout all of Latin America so don’t even bother. While it may look and feel like the food truck phenomena that has swept the states I can tell you that the quality of food is not only lacking, but altogether questionable. You have no idea what you are eating or what type of sanitary standards are being used. I can tell you that no obvious cleaning standards are the norm.
Nicaragua is safe, until it isn’t
Don’t be stupid! That is the best advice I can give you whether you are in Nicaragua, New Orleans, Sydney or Buenos Aires. Just don’t be an idiot and you’ll be fine. If you look around and don’t see anyone like you and it’s dark out, you’re dumb and you could be in trouble. Stick to well traveled streets and if you do wander off, don’t allow a local to pry into your business in an effort to take you unaware and you will be perfectly fine. Nicaragua is considered an extremely safe country and I can attest to the fact that if you stay aware and avoid places where you are all alone, you’ll be okay.
These are the main aspects of Nicaragua that you’ll want to consider before taking the plunge and buying that plane ticket. Overall, the country is very nice and down-to-earth, I personally think it is amazing! But remember, there is nothing flashy about Nicaragua but the authenticity of the people and culture are what draws travelers like me to its shores.