8 ways to enjoy this less-traveled destination
The land of sprawling lakes, pristine beaches, and 19 active volcanoes, Nicaragua beckons with alluring, off-the-beaten-path destinations.
From sandboarding down a volcanic slope to meandering amongst a sea of inland islands, you can charge your adrenaline — or just your batteries — in this extraordinary landscape. Find what you need on vacation here when you uncover Nicaragua!
1. Give in to Granada’s charm
Surrender to the romantic, Spanish-colonial spell of Granada, whose cobblestone streets and lakefront setting exude the charm of a bygone era.
Start by visiting the picturesque central square, the meeting place for students, families, and foreigners alike. You can’t miss Granada’s historic, bright yellow cathedral and its commanding dome overlooking the square. Climb up its bell tower for panoramic views of the surrounding volcanoes, and let your eyes follow the inviting boulevard stretching all the way to Lake Nicaragua.
Nearby, peek into an elegant hotel, dating to the 1600s, with its two stories overlooking a large, open-air courtyard and manicured gardens. Elsewhere most of Granada’s architecture features lovingly preserved, mid-19th century homes, shops, and hotels, splashed in hues of pink, orange, red, blue, and brown.
Head to the bustling commercial area and take in the action at the thriving marketplace, and afterward visit the handmade-shoe factory and the delightful store that turns out festive piñatas. You can even learn hammock-making techniques at a small workshop. Along the way, duck into museums and art galleries to further absorb the city’s rich culture.
As evening falls, wander the pedestrian “calzada” (promenade) in the heart of the historic district, with its galleries, boutiques, clubs, restaurants, and occasional street performers. Choose from a delicious array of dining options, as Granada’s lively restaurant scene features everything from international fusion to local fare.
From its perch on the northwestern shore of sprawling Lake Nicaragua, Granada also serves as your base camp for eco-exploration. Tour scenic lake islands, bike out to pristine beaches, or a hike a volcano.
2. Explore an island between two volcanoes
Marvel at a sight like no other: Two volcanoes, one active, one dormant, linked together by a thin strip of land, all in the middle of massive Lake Nicaragua. Nowhere in your Central America travels, or perhaps anywhere else on the planet, will you encounter a breathtaking, natural formation like Ometepe Island.
An indigenous word meaning “between two mountains,” Ometepe offers many appealing diversions, as adventurous or leisurely as you wish. For starters, head to the Mirador del Diablo (Devil’s Lookout) and enjoy the amazing panorama of the lake (8,156 square kilometres / 3,149 square miles) and the Concepción and Maderas Volcanoes.
Rising 1,700 metres (5,577 feet), restless Concepción frequently belches clouds of smoke, gas, and steam from its cone. Its sleeping sibling, Maderas (1,394 metres / 4,573 feet), features a scenic crater lake, shrouded in verdant foliage. You can hike the slopes of both — watch out for howler monkeys, known to surprise visitors — and enjoy picturesque waterfalls along the way.
Be sure to discover Ometepe’s remote coves and beaches, too. Enjoy swimming, canoeing, kayaking, horseback riding, and biking. Don’t miss a refreshing dip in the mineral-rich waters of Ojo de Agua (Eye of Water).
Save time and energy during your tour to bike to Punta Jesús María, a narrow spit where the two volcanoes meet, and check out the Charco Verde (Green Pool) Reserve, known for its emerald waters.
For evidence of the island’s ancient history, note Ometepe’s mysterious stone carvings. Some of its more than 2,000 petroglyphs date back to 1000 BC. And to learn about local indigenous culture, visit the small towns of Moyogalpa or Altagracia.
3. Sandboard down an active volcano
Test the limits of your adrenaline as you zoom down a barren volcanic slope, riding atop a simple, sled-like board. Think snowboarding — but without the snow.
Start your sandboarding adventure at the base of Central America’s youngest volcano, Cerro Negro (Black Hill), which rumbled to life in 1850. For starters, look for three craters opening up at its base. They formed in 1999 during the last of Cerro Negro’s 11 heavy eruptions of the 20th century.
Next, set out on a 45- to 60-minute climb up its rocky, boulder-strewn north face. The wind picks up as you ascend, and you may get a whiff of pungent, volcanic seeping out of small vents.
Once at the wind-whipped summit (726 metres / 2,400 feet), revel in the view. The stunning vista reaches to the Pacific Ocean, taking in the entire mountain range, including the Telica and San Cristobal volcanoes, and the city of León, about 24 kilometres (15 miles) away.
After resting and enjoying the vista, cross over to the mountain’s western face, peering into the crater as you make your way. Look out over a lifeless, black moonscape of small, loose stones and pebbles from Cerro Negro’s eruptions. Take a deep breath and gear up for the ride of your life!
Novices can ride their sandboard sitting down, toboggan-style, whilst hanging on to a handlebar attached by rope to the board. More daring and experienced adventurers slide their feet into straps and stand on the board for the quick, surfing-style trip down.
Either way, be prepared for speed. The slope’s 41-degree angle and smooth surface mean a friction-free, heart-stopping rush, which kicks up a rooster tail of fine, gray dust in your wake. The record descent is 95 kph (55 mph), and the entire plunge can be as fast as three minutes.
4. Cruise a sea of lake islands
Set out by motorboat or kayak and explore Las Isletas, a sea of small islands rising from the gentle surface of impressive Lake Nicaragua near the colonial city of Granada.
Formed tens of thousands of years ago by an eruption of the Mombacho Volcano, the islands serve as the playgrounds of hundreds of bird and wildlife species. To this day Mombacho dominates the horizon, rising 1,344 metres (4,409 feet) at the lake’s edge. But no worries — the volcano has long been dormant, its last eruption occurring in 1570.
The islets it created range in size from 100 square metres (1,076 square feet) to and over 100 hectares (247 acres). As you cruise amongst the islands, you’ll come across an occasional wooden canoe with a bare-chested fisherman working his nets. Another skiff may be filled with young children, happily navigating between their island homes.
Inhabited by fishermen and their families for generations, some islands welcome visitors with restaurants, cafés, lodges, and shops. A few others, privately owned, serve as vacation getaways for the country’s elite.
By far most of the islands remain undeveloped and pristine, thriving with an array of wildlife amongst coconut palms and lush, dense growth.
You’ll see ringed kingfishers, purple gallinules, herons, vultures, parrots, and hawks in the water or fluttering in the treetops. With their wings spread out, cormorants stand perfectly still on sunny perches to dry out after their underwater fishing expeditions.
On aptly named Monkey Island, the playful mammals head for the shore as they hear you approaching, hopeful someone will throw a banana their way. Stop at another intriguing islet, Fort San Pablo, and explore the 18th century bastion built by the Spaniards to protect Granada from pirates.
For an especially unforgettable experience, tour at sunset when the sky becomes an artistic palette of colour, and birds and wildlife shift into an energetic feeding pattern before nightfall.
5. Relax nonstop at Little Corn Island
Relax, unwind, repeat, at one of Central America’s best-kept secrets, Little Corn Island. Sparkling in the Caribbean Sea about 70 kilometres (43 miles) off Nicaragua’s coast, Little Corn Island and its sibling, Big Corn Island, invite you to slip away for a secluded escape.
Fly to Big Corn from Managua, and then hop a water taxi for the short ride to Little Corn, where your tropical respite awaits. Walk, bike, or ride a horse anywhere you like on Little Corn, as the 2.9-square-kilometre (1.1-square-mile) island has no roads or cars. Just write “relax” across your agenda as you sway in a hammock to the lullaby of the crashing surf and watch sea birds glide overhead.
At night, sip a drink and enjoy delicious, fresh-caught Caribbean lobster in a rustic, thatch-roofed restaurant. With electricity only part of the day, Little Corn keeps things wonderfully simple with its low-key Caribbean vibe.
Big Corn — hardly “big” at just 10 square kilometres (3.9 square miles) — is more developed, with an airport, roads, restaurants, and colourful wooden houses.
With stunning white-sand beaches, vibrant coral reefs, clear turquoise waters, awe-inspiring sunsets, and endless palms, both Little Corn and Big Corn Islands define an island paradise.
More than 40 species of corals along the nearby barrier reefs attract exotic marine life. You can snorkel right off the beach in some spots, and scuba divers enjoy reef and cave exploration. You can also set out in a kayak, or book a deep-sea fishing trip.
Once a favourite haunt of pirates, the Corn Islands deliver a true escape from the everyday, making it a must during your Central America vacation.
6. Hit the beach at San Juan del Sur
Satisfy your seaside cravings in and around San Juan del Sur, a laidback beach town on the Pacific Coast of southern Nicaragua.
Enjoy dramatic views overlooking San Juan’s large, horseshoe-shaped bay, resting between two volcanic bluffs. Fishing boats, sail boats, and private yachts all find safe harbor on the bay’s tranquil, protected waters. Be sure to stroll the waterfront at sunset for dramatic splashes of colour.
In the morning, grab a surfboard and head to nearby beaches of Popoyo and Santana and their world-renowned breaks. Novices can easily take lessons in calmer waters nearby.
If you simply want beachfront tranquility, wander just outside of town where small coves, private beaches, and crystal, turquoise water await. Swaying coconut palms and carefree sea birds will keep you company as you luxuriate in the sand and Pacific surf. (You may even glimpse nesting sea turtles between July and November.)
Take it all in with a coastal cruise aboard a local panga boat or sailboat. Maybe a playful dolphin will escort you for part of the voyage past the many small bays, inlets, and beaches.
Save time to enjoy the gems sprinkled throughout San Juan’s easygoing streets, such as the murals accenting walls around town. And even without murals, San Juan’s ageless Victorian architecture grabs your attention with vivid hues of blue, red, yellow, and green brightening up the clapboard siding.
Because San Juan attracts a steady flow of international travelers and surfers, you get to choose from a delicious range of dining, drinking, shopping, and nightlife venues.
Duck into a rustic restaurant or café for a simple, delicious taco or delightful, fresh-caught seafood. Be sure to catch sunset from one, too. Then dance the night away at the town’s rustic clubs and bars, rocking with live music and DJs.
More than a surf and beach destination, San Juan also serves as your connection for inland adventure. In the nearby jungles, go hiking, bird watching, zip-lining, rappelling, horseback riding, or biking.
7. Savour León’s rich culture
Immerse yourself in Nicaraguan culture and customs as you explore historic León, an unpretentious city with stunning colonial streetscapes.
The heart of the northern coastal region, León pulses with a vibrant, artistic appeal, as you’ll quickly see in its vivid murals along city streets. Spend some time in art galleries and intriguing museums, one of them a former prison. At the Museum of the Revolution, a real Sandinista “guerrillero” will explain the tumultuous history that took place from 1978 to 1990.
Let the colonial architecture take you back to the days of the conquistadors, and admire the historic churches dotting the town. At Central America’s largest church, the Basílica Catedral de la Asunción, investigate the tombs of more than a dozen prominent Nicaraguans, including the country’s literary son, Rubén Darío. Climb the stairs to the cathedral’s roof for superb views of the city and the volcanoes looming nearby.
Stroll around the large plaza in front of the cathedral, and note the impressive mural showing the struggles of earlier years. Peruse the arts and crafts spread out beneath colourful umbrellas near the gazebo / bandstand.
Sample the unique flavors offered by vendors at various street markets and sidewalk cafes. Sip a beer-like chicha, a purple-pink concoction made from ground corn and served in a plastic bag with a straw. For a snack, try a quesillo — cheese rolled into a tortilla and covered in cream and onions.
In the evening, shift gears and savour León’s cosmopolitan edge, featuring a generous mix of restaurants and an active nightlife.
Make León your basecamp for exploring nearby destinations, such as the Pacific beaches at Playa Las Peñitas or Poneloya, where you can surf, swim, or walk the beach. Nearby, the mangroves of the Juan Venado Reserve teem with bird and wildlife. Be sure to visit the reserve’s sea turtle sanctuary.
8. Gaze at a boiling lava lake
Experience a close encounter with churning, red-hot lava at the summit of Masaya Volcano, and visit the colourful villages in its shadows below.
Nicaragua’s shortest volcano, Masaya rises a modest 635 metres (2,083 feet). It’s so accessible that you can drive right up to its rim. Whether you ride or hike up, enjoy the mesmerizing sight of a crater filled with boiling lava, nature’s raw power on display right before your eyes.
Take a minute to enjoy the panoramic view of Masaya’s dormant sibling, Nindiri, and the five craters in between. To amp up the fiery display, visit at sunset, when parakeets return to their nests within the crater walls and bats take wing from their volcanic hideouts. The red-orange lava glows with stunning brightness as the night unfolds.
At the nearby Masaya market, take a look at traditional handmade artisan ceramics, carved wood, and hammocks. Tour the Pueblos Blancos (White Villages) near Masaya to discover more about the generations of artists who make these crafts.
To add a mystical diversion, head just out of town to the Pueblos Brujos (Bewitched Villages) and watch a little magic unfold. Fortunetellers, tarot card readers, and ritualistic healers all offer their specialties along the streets.