A land of contrasts, Nicaragua is Central America’s sweet spot with all of the culture and nature, yet with few tourists. Word is quickly getting out about Nicaragua, long off the radar for all but the hardiest of travellers to Central America. Feeling inspired? Explore these best things to do in Nicaragua.
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A vibrant university town with a revolutionary past. Closer to the Pacific coast, near the Honduran border, León is the country’s second largest city with a population of 200,000. The swelteringly hot lowland city has maintained its colonial core, with more than a dozen 18th-century churches, many of which are connected by underground tunnels once used to escape pirate attacks and now part of the sewer system.
The colonial baroque Basilica Catedral de la Asuncion was built between 1747 and 1814 and is the largest cathedral in Central America. Having endured earthquakes and bombings, it has become a symbol of the city itself.
Explore León in Nicaragua, home to the largest cathedral in Central America on the Colonial City Tour. See the ruins of one of the continent’s first Spanish cities, preserved by ash from a volcanic eruption.
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The world’s largest volcanic island within a freshwater lake, Ometepe is one of Nicaragua’s primary attractions, even though it’s quite rugged and lacks much infrastructure. Seeing the island’s twin volcanic peaks from the lake – the perfectly conical Concepción and forest-covered Madera, connected by the Istián isthmus – is one of the best things to do in Nicaragua.
Primarily used for agricultural purposes, nearly anything will grow in Ometepe’s rich volcanic soil, including coffee, bananas, and avocados. Pre-Columbian petroglyphs and rock carvings are found across the island, though there is likely much more to be discovered beneath the thick jungle.
Travel from Granada to Ometepe Island and enjoy a day of sightseeing and relaxation. Explore the diversity of plant and animal life in this UNESCO Biosphere Preserve. Learn about the various tribes and cultures on the island, and hang out on the beach.
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Surfing by day, partying by night in Nicaragua's favourite beach resort is certianly one of the best things to do in Nicaragua. A little more than a couple of decades ago, word started to get out about a sleepy fishing village with great surf breaks called San Juan del Sur.
San Juan del Sur’s main attraction, the beach, encircles a crescent shaped bay where the San Juan River empties into the Pacific Ocean. Aside from a few beachside restaurants, most amenities are set back from the beach’s southeastern corner, in a seemingly thrown-together grid packed with surf stores, a microbrewery, an artisanal donut shop, taquerias, and dozens of small hostels and hotels.
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A tourist-friendly colonial jewel, now painstakingly restored. Established in 1524, Granada is the oldest colonial city in the Americas and shares some of the Moorish architecture of its Spanish namesake.
The centre of Granada’s historic core is at Parque Colón, a vibrant central square where parrots squawk in the tall palms and food stands sell vigorón, a traditional snack of pork and cabbage wrapped in banana leaf.
For many travellers, the cobblestone streets and colonial townhouses-turned-boutique hotels in Granada serve as a base from which they explore the rest of the country. Easy day trips from the city allow for hikes on the forested slopes of the Mombacho Volcano or for soaks in the hot springs below it.
Explore the colonial architecture of Granada on Lake Nicaragua on a 3-hour tour, and admire landmark attractions such as the San Francisco Convent, Merced Church, and La Polvora Fort. Ride a horse carriage to some of the most scenic surroundings.
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Twenty minutes west of Granada is the Laguna de Apoyo Nicaragua’s largest volcanic lagoon. More than 200 meters (656 ft) deep and 6km (4 miles) in diameter, the caldera is ringed with lush forests where toucans and white-face monkeys can easily be spotted on a short hike.
A few restaurants and ecolodges, some of which rent kayaks, can be found on a strip along the northwestern shore of Apoyo, though the majority of visitors come on a day trip from Granada.
Lake Apoyo is an attractive tourist destination thanks to its dark sand beaches for swimming, kayaking, hiking, snorkelling, bird watching, paragliding, boating and more.
Enjoy panoramic views of Granada, Lake Nicaragua, and the Laguna de Apoyo with this Mombacho Volcano Nature Reserve tour.
Take to the water to explore the tropical forest and the El Castillo ruins. On the south eastern shore of Lake Nicaragua, where it meets the San Juan River, San Carlos is a bustling port town.
Most travellers pass through here on their way to the Solentiname Islands, using their time while waiting for boats to hang out at the string of bars and restaurants located in stilted wooden houses over the water. Agencies in town can arrange tours east along the San Juan River, where there are several unique hotels. A Spanish-built fortress can be seen at El Castillo which is much stronger than the one in San Carlos.
The islands of Big Corn and Little Corn are a world of their own. With white sand beaches fringed with palm trees and turquoise water offering the country’s most pristine coral reefs.
A single paved road runs the length of Big Corn Island, which is where most tourism in the Corn Islands is concentrated. For those that think there is too much going on over on Big Corn Island, they will love Little Corn. Less than 2km (1.2 miles) long, the tiny isle is accessible by speedboat several times a day from Big Corn Island, an approximately 30-minute ride.
There are no cars here, just a patch of jungle circled by clean, clear beaches and one well-trodden footpath which makes relaxing on this beach one of the most tranquil things to do in Nicaragua.
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Downhill fun on the ash-covered slopes of Cerro Negro near León. The ruins of the original León, a Unesco World Heritage Site known as León Viejo were laid buried in ash from the 1610 eruption of the Momotombo Volcano. The ruins were lost for 300 years until the late 1960s.
Excavations have revealed brick walls and the general layout of the city, as well as the cathedral and plaza, with the headless remains of founder Francisco Hernández de Córdoba beneath it. The site can be visited on a day-long guided tour through any agency in León, such as Vapues and are usually combined with a hike to the top of the Cerro Negro Volcano, with options for sandboarding down the black volcanic slopes.
Find some more interesting ideas for your trip in our guide to the Central America adventure.
Experience volcano boarding on this adventurous 5-hour tour from León. Hike up to the top of the Cerro Negro, where you can admire the spectacular views and walk around the crater. Then enjoy the thrill of sliding down this active volcano.
Near the border with Honduras, just off the Pan-American highway, Estelí is a university town that gave rise to the Sandinistas. Set in a broad valley surrounded by forested hills, the highland city is Nicaragua’s third largest.
Roughly 30km (19 miles) northeast of Estelí is the Miraflor Cloudforest Reserve, notable for the tourist-friendly organic farming community that adjoins it. The reserve centres on a mountain lake ringed by primary forest that is transected by hiking trails to several waterfalls.
After the Cuban Revolution in 1959, Cuban cigar makers flocked to Estelí to take advantage of the ideal tobacco growing conditions in the surrounding countryside. Today, some of the best cigars in the world come from the city and it remains one of the primary local industries.
While most cigar factories do not offer tours, some do, and these can be set up through any hotel or tour agency in town. The tours reveal how the leaves are dried and the tobacco rolled, though some are more elaborate with multi-day itineraries that include extensive sampling and visits to farms, such as at Drew Estate.
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In the quietest corner of Lake Nicaragua, the 30-plus small tropical islands that make up the Archipiélago de Solentiname have been the unlikely centre of the internationally renowned primitive art movement. In the 1960s, the poet and priest Ernesto Cardenal helped inspire the islanders to paint the flora and fauna around them.
Other artists came, as did television crews to capture the phenomenon, and today many of the roughly 1,000 residents here make a living painting and carving sculptures of local fauna out of balsa wood. Most tourist amenities, which are few, are concentrated in Mancarrón, the largest island and where Cardenal based his colourful parish in the whitewashed Iglesia Nuestra Señora de Solentiname.
The archipelago of 354 islands called Las Isletas is easily reached from Granada’s waterfront. Many of the islands have been purchased by wealthy residents of Managua (who have built mansions on them). However, others – often just the length of a fishing line away – are quite humble, with rustic yet charming wooden shacks.
From the southern end of the Complejo Turístico Cocibolca near Granada, boat tours explore the islands, stopping at the small Spanish fort of San Pablo. Another way of experiencing Las Isletas is to stay at the eco-friendly Jicaro Island Lodge the premier hotel in Las Isletas and built using local materials. The lodge helps fund an organic farm on one of the islands and supports several schools.
Explore the islets of the immense Lake Nicaragua on a 2.5-hour kayaking tour. Pass jungles and savannas rich with vibrant vegetation and wildlife, as well as savoring views of the lake, Granada, and Mombacho Volcano from atop an old colonial fortress!
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Nicaragua’s capital of folklore, Masaya is just 9km (5.5 miles) from Granada. Surrounded by hissing volcanoes and tiny rural villages known for their handicrafts, visiting Masaya should be on your list of things to do in Nicaragua for buying souvenirs.
Nicaragua’s first and largest national park, the 54 sq km (34 sq miles) Parque Nacional Volcán Masaya is the home of five craters and two calderas. The extremely active Masaya caldera, known as the ‘Gates of Hell’ to the Spanish, exploded as recently as 2001, allowing a new vent to form; ash and steam regularly shoot out into the sky above.
Looking for more volcano destinations? Explore our guide to the world's top 20 volcanoes.
Explore Masaya Volcano, one of the most active volcanoes in Central America, on this 6-hour tour from Granada. Explore the smoking craters of the volcano before exploring the local artisan market and visiting the town of Catarina.
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Lake Nicaragua, also called Lake Cocibolca, is nearly the same size as South America’s Lake Titicaca, which is why the Spanish nicknamed it the ‘Mar Dulce,’ or Sweet Sea. There are plans to make the lake the centrepiece of a canal project that would rival the one in Panama, likely causing serious environmental degradation, though it might never become a reality.
For now, the lake is an ecotourism hotspot, with the island of Ometepe – made of two volcanoes and the narrow strip of land between them – as the focal point. Farther afield is the Solentiname archipelago, an artist colony, and the Rio Coco, which runs parallel to the Costa Rican border and gives access to the Caribbean coast.
Explore Nicaragua Lake and all its beauty, amazing views, great bird life and learn about the Spanish Colonization with this Las Isletas boat tour.
The Spanish began settling in what is the scenic Nueva Segovia region in 1534, though pirates sailing up the River Coco from the Caribbean in search of gold repeatedly attacked. The settlers moved to what is now Ocotal in 1654, quickly developing an important source of timber for the growing nation.
Today, the city of 30,000 is home to a lovely central plaza filled with tropical foliage, pine trees, and flowers, and sided by a neoclassical church. The surrounding countryside, chock-full of cattle ranches and coffee fincas, makes for fine cycling and several tour agencies and hotels in town will rent bikes.
Southwest of Ocotal on the PanAmerican Highway, not far from the Honduran border, is the Somoto Canyon, a rugged gorge with unusual rock formations.
If you are interested in the Central America destinations also try our guides to the best things to do in Costa Rica or the best things to do in Dominican Republic.
The origins of Nicaragua’s most famous dish, gallo pinto (literally, painted rooster), trace back to a former province called Guanacaste, which is now a part of Costa Rica. Still, Nicaraguans claim the dish, which is comprised of seasoned rice and black or red beans mixed with onion, cilantro, garlic, and peppers.
Bananas and plantains find their way into almost in dish as tajadas (plantain chips), tostones (pressed and fried in oil), and maduros (slow roasted with sugar). In Granada, the most famous dish is vigorón, a plate of boiled yuca topped with fried pork skin and cabbage slaw that’s served on a banana leaf.
Nacatamales, Nicaragua’s version of the tamale, is served in markets and restaurants around the country, often with distinct regional preparations.
It should be noted that apart from its exotic beauty Central America is also one of the cheapest destinations to travel to. Read our guide to the budget trips around the world and find more places which combine excellent leisure activities with accessibility.
Visiting Nicaragua is a truly unforgettable experience. For more inspirational travel tips check our Rough Guide books. If you travel further in Nicaragua, read more about the best time to go and the best places to visit in Nicaragua. Also learn about getting there, getting around the country and where to stay once you are there.
If you prefer to plan and book your trip to the Nicaragua without any effort and hassle, use the expertise of our local travel experts to make sure your trip will be just like you dream it to be.
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