Backpacking Nicaragua was without a doubt my favourite adventure in Central America. With chilled surfing beaches, heady party towns, towering volcanos and stunning landscapes, backpacking across Nicaragua is an experience unlike any other and there really is something for everybody.
Travelling through Nicaragua is relatively easy and you can arrange pretty much all of your travels yourself. Best of all, Nicaragua is a very easy country to go backpacking in; it’s cheap, it’s safe and it’s small – meaning the travel distances aren’t too awful.
If you can, try to avoid the rainy season and visit the country from November to April. The really popular guest-houses fill up fast so this is a country where it can definitely be worth making reservations. The local people are a really friendly bunch and keen to help so if you have any problems don’t be afraid to ask for directions from the locals. A little bit of Spanish goes a long way in Central America so it is worth trying to learn a few phrases if you can.
- Accommodation: Room costs vary across the country with Leon being one of the most expensive places to stay. In general, the good places fill up fast so you want to try and book in advance. It’s possible to get a dorm bed for as little as $5 but a double room will often cost the price of two beds in a dorm so if there’s two of you, you can have a private room most of the time for no additional cost.
- Food: The food is cheap, tasty and plentiful. There’s not as much street food as I would like but you can normally pick up a meal in a local Comedor for around $1. If your eating out, expect to pay more like $10 for a decent meal.
- Transport: When it comes to getting around in Nicaragua, it’s pretty easy going. I hitched a fair bit and found it relatively easy and safe but some locals seemed to think I was crazy for risking it! The cheapest way to get around is by chicken bus. This is how most of the locals get around. Tourist shuttles are available to most major destinations on the backpacker circuit but they cost significantly more.
- Activities: From kayaking and trekking to canyoning and surfing, Nicaragua is an adventure playground. You can do some activities really cheap, certainly cheaper than back home, but, if your a serious surfer, you may want to bring your own surfboard.
Top Things to See and Do
- Leon: This stunning colonial city is a great place to get stuck. I ended up lingering here for nearly two weeks in the extremely comfortable Tortuga Boluda hostel. Wherever you stay, try to find a hostel with a kitchen as eating out in Leon every day get’s expensive. The Pan Y Paz bakery is well worth finding for delicious breads, pastries and coffee and if you really fancy splashing out head to Carnivoro for amazing meat dishes or Antoninos for big pizzas. In the evening, there are plenty of hopping bars with one of the liveliest scenes being at the Bigfoot Hostel. Make sure to check out the stunning cathedral in the main square, for just a dollar you can get right up on top of the whitewashed roof where you will be rewarded with stunning panoramic views of the city. The nearby art museum, Museu de Arte fundación ortiz guardianm is also well worth a look and a good place to spend an afternoon. Whilst in Nicaragua keep an eye out for the greatest smoothie chain in the world – Siembras y Cosechas – I recommend going for the raspberry, blueberry and pineapple shake!
- Volcano Boarding: One of the main attractions of Nicaragua is that you can have a crack at volcano boarding, racing down a 45 degree, jet black, ashen slope on a long board. There are several volcanos to choose from with Cerro Negro being the most popular. It’s easy to arrange a day-trip from Leon or, if you prefer, you can even sign up to a 3 day hike across multiple volcanos.
- Somoto Canyon: A must on any adventure-junkies itinerary, exploring Somoto Canyon is definitely worth it if you have the time. Just bear in mind that the canyon is a five hour journey from Leon by chicken buses and so you can end up losing two whole days just getting their and back from Leon. I do not recommend going with a tour company, it’s a waste of money. Instead, just rock up at the canyon entrance and hire a guide for $25 for the day. The guide will provide you with life-jackets and everything else you need to explore the canyon safely, you will spend the day floating, swimming and jumping into the river winding through the canyon. Some of the jumps, many of which are optional, are up to eighteen meters high! If you choose to spend the night, I recommend crashing at ‘Henri’s Farm’.
- Granada: An easy hop from Leon by chicken bus, Granada is another colonial city with gorgeous buildings, a vibrant night-life and historical sites. You don’t need too long, perhaps just a day, to get a feel for this city but make sure you visit the cathedral and bargain hunt for hand-made souvenirs in the central square. Be sure to stay in the incredibly good value Oasis Hostel and to find the Hot Dog Connection for some of the cheapest and tastiest burgers in all of town. If your feeling adventurous, you could also check out the nearby Pojo de Rojo Treehouse hostel but be warned, this hostel has seen much better days and the vibe just feels all wrong.
- Laguna De Apoyo: My all time favourite place in all of Central America, you should definitely make the effort to head to this enormous fresh-water lagoon a short hop from Granada. Stay in Paradiso for a couple of nights, you won’t regret it.
- Ometepe Island: From Granada, take a chicken bus to Rivas and another bus to San Jorge to catch the ferry to Ometepe. Most travellers opt to spend a couple of days here, one exploring the island by motorbike (you can hire one for around $20 a day) and another to hike to the top of Madera Volcano. I recommend staying at the Landing Hotel, it is cheap, friendly and right next to the ferry dock. For breakfast, check out the Corner House.
- San Juan Del Sur: As soon as you arrive in Central America you will start seeing ‘Sunday Funday’ tank tops upon hordes of backpackers. This near-legendary event consists of getting well and truly plastered on a sunday pub-crawl. My sources have informed me that both cocaine and MDMA are available in San Juan Del Sur but I met more than one backpacker who had been screwed over so be careful. Inside San Juan Del Sur itself, there isn’t much going on, besides an amazing Italian Gelato place (go for the Nutella!), but it is a great place to plan your attack on the surrounding beaches.
- Playa Madera: A popular surfer hang-out, this is a good place to rent a board for a day ($10) and hit the waves. This beach is normally pretty busy and the food is very expensive, bring snacks. Likewise, it is an expensive place to stay although if you have a tent you can camp for free. I recommend turning right (as you face the ocean) and walking along the beach, over the rocks and on to the next beach along, this is a much quieter place to stay with just one small restaurant and two guesthouses, Matilde’s is the best option. If you have the time, you can rent a house to live in from just $20 a day. The next beach over from Matilde’s is completely isolated – it takes just two minutes to walk there but there is currently no buildings whatsoever. It is pretty much like having your own private beach. If your there at the right time of the year, you may see baby turtles scrambling down towards the sea.
Caribbean Coast: When it comes to getting to the Caribbean, you have two options. You can either fly to Big Corn Island from Managua (with returns costing around $180) or you can take a series of buses and boats for around $30. From Managua, catch a bus to El Rama and then a boat down the river to Blue Fields, maybe pause a day in Blue Fields to check out the legendary cocaine scene. From Blue Fields, catch another boat to Big Corn Island and then a panga, a small boat, to Little Corn. Little Corn is a great place to spend a few days exploring, swimming and snorkelling. You could also check out the Pearl Keys but you would need to hire a boat and this would be expensive.
Backpack Nicaragua for free!
Perhaps one of the best options for backpackers wanting to explore Nicaragua long-term and experience living in this truly incredible country is to get a Teaching English as a Foreign Language course online. TEFL courses open up a huge range of opportunities and you can find teaching work all over the world. To find out more about TEFL courses and how you can teach English around the world, read my in-depth report on teaching english abroad.
Even if you are only going on a short trip, you should always travel with insurance. Have fun on your backpacking adventure but please do get insurance – take it from someone who has racked up tens of thousands of bucks on an insurance claim before, you need it.
As a wise man once said, if you can’t afford travel insurance, you shouldn’t be travelling – so be sure to get your backpacker insurance sorted before you head off on a backpacking adventure! Travelling without insurance would be fucking stupid. I highly recommend World Nomads.
For more info, on all the kickass things you can do whilst backpacking in Nicaragua, check out this travel guide.
Peace and love guys!
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