Nicaragua: Quick and Dirty Country Guide

Nicaragua is a severely underrated travel destination and we recommend it wholeheartedly. As the largest country in Central America with over 1/5th of the country set aside for preservation, it has a wide range of natural sights. It’s known as the land of lakes and volcanoes, so it’s particularly good for swimming and hiking, perhaps most famously on the island of Ometepe, where you can do both in one day.

Although it’s often overshadowed by its well-marketed southern neighbor, Costa Rica, Nicaragua offers many similar experiences for a much cheaper price in our experience. Travel can be a bit harder for non-Spanish speakers or those with little experience in less developed countries, but it’s incredibly rewarding and your trip is bound to have plenty of stories to take home.

Background

  1. Economy: Nicaragua is quite poor. The economy is very dependent on agriculture, particularly coffee and beef, although tourism is the second largest industry and growing fast.
  2. Money: The Nicaraguan Cordoba currently trades at 29.86 to $1 USD (as of 5/16/17). See here for updated data. There are currency exchange offices in the Managua airport, but the rate isn’t great. We’d recommend getting cordobas directly out of the ATM if your bank offers the option.We use Schwab, which has international ATM fee reimbursement and no foreign transaction fees.
    1. Roughly half the restaurants we went to accepted credit card.
    2. We used credit card to pay for about 60% of our hostels and cash for the other 40%.
  3. People: There are about 6 million Nicaraguans (Nicas) living in the country, although about 2.5 million of them (over 40%) live in the capital city of Managua.  Most of the rest of the people live on the Pacific side of the country, with less than 1 million living on the Caribbean side.
  4. Language: Spanish is the main language, but if you stick to bigger cities you’ll be fine with English and won’t have any trouble booking a hostel, tour, or rental.
  5. Things To Do:
    1. Beaches: Absolutely gorgeous. If you’re looking for a beach vacation, Nicaragua is a great destination. We hit a few of the beaches below and recommend you bring food and water when you go. If the beach is not in/very close to a major town, you’ll be lucky to find a restaurant close by.
      1. Playa Maderas – We spent a few days learning to surf here. It’s a small tourist town, but there are plenty of good hostels, surf rental shops, and a couple of restaurants, and bars.
      2. Playa Colorado – Wonderful for surf and swim.
      3. San Juan del Sur – This beach is in the harbor of the city San Juan del Sur and good for a casual swim. No good for surfing.
      4. Playa Gigante – Wonderful for surf and swim.
    2. Cities:
      1. Managua is the capital city and has most of the country’s population, but even locals will say it’s not worth sticking around for too long.
      2. Granada: On the shore of Lake Nicaragua about one hour east of Managua, depending on traffic of course. Beautiful colonial architecture, a fun Chocolate Museum, and some churches worth visiting. Las Isletas are just a boat ride away.
      3. San Juan del Sur: No backpacking trip through Nicaragua is complete without a stop in this beach town. Full of good hostels, bars, and restaurants.
      4. Moyogalpa: If you take the ferry from San Jorge, this is where you’ll land. Has some good hostels, food (foreign and local), and motorbike rental shops.
      5. Leon: Another beautiful colonial town like Granada. Close to hiking and other fun outdoor activities like sand boarding.
    3. Lake Nicaragua: It’s just as large as it looks on the map, absolutely ginormous. We visited Ometepe island in the middle and had a great time exploring the island via motorbike. You definitely feel like you’re out there. We loved swimming in the lake.
    4. Corn Islands:  Two islands off the Caribbean coast. Famous for their natural beauty.
  6. Tourist Friendliness: We felt very welcome in Nicaragua. There is a well-beaten path through some of the larger cities, making it easy to see the country. While you won’t be the only foreigner on the road, you won’t be totally surrounded by other travelers either and will have plenty of opportunities to dig into the local scene if you like.

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Planning a Visit

One of the things that we liked most about Nicaragua was the low cost and ease of travel. We landed without planning a thing and found it really easy to get going.

Budget

On average, we spent about $29/person/day and had a great experience, although we did forgo some of the pricier tours. We stayed in hostels and AirBnbs, took a mix of public buses and taxis, and cooked many of our own meals. We paid an average of $12.50/night/person at hostels and AirBnbs and $5.60 per person per meal on restaurants. We spent a total of $58 USD per person on entertainment, including 2 days of surfing, 2 days of scooter rentals on Ometepe, and 3 separate park entrance fees.

Transport

Do Nicaragua by bus. They’re pretty easy to find and we were able to get around the main cities with no issues. If you’re trying to keep cost down, keep your eye out for colectivos, known as chicken buses in English. They are generally old, converted school buses that run set routes between the bigger cities for a very low price (about $3.5 USD on average), but you won’t be alone. These buses cram in as many people as they can, so if you arrive just before departure, you might be sitting on a stool in the middle aisle or standing. To save space, your baggage rides on top of the bus. It’s a fun experience, but make sure to watch for your bag at every stop. We didn’t have any problems, but you always want to be vigilant as there are horror stories of people snagging your bag at a random stop.

We did take a few taxis to get to some of our more remote hostels, but tried to avoid them as they’re much pricier. We paid an average of $3.13 each for taxi rides for shorter, but non-walkable distances. We had a friend join us for taxis, so total average cost would be around $9 for 1-4 people.

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Food

As in much of Central America, get ready for lots of rice, beans, and meat if you’re sticking to a tight budget. In Nicaragua they call it gallo pinto and most people eat it almost daily. We stuck to local restaurants and spent an average of $5.60 per person per meal. If you have more to spend, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the number of higher-end restaurants. In Managua, you’ll find foreign food (Italian, burgers, sushi, etc.) pretty easily at roughly US prices.

Local specialties include quesillo, tostones, pinolillo, and vigoron.

Accommodation

There are plenty of hostels in all the big towns, not to mention AirBnbs. We paid an average of $12.50 USD/person/night doing a mix of both and were very happy with the selection. Most places had good, cheap dorm beds with decent WiFi and kitchens. Cold water showers are standard, so don’t turn a good place down because of that. I’d recommend booking something for your first night in the country, and then playing it by ear as there are so many options.

  1. If you’re staying in Managua, which is almost unavoidable if you’re flying in and out, we highly recommend Managua Backpackers Inn. It’s a very good price ($9/person/night for a dorm), has breakfast included, potable tap water (a rarity), a pool, and great common areas. There isn’t much to do in Managua, but it is close to a bigger commercial district, meaning you can hit the mall, the grocery store, and the movie theater if you want to.
  2. When you pass through San Juan del Sur, you’ll find plenty of options. We stayed at Javier’s Hostel, which we loved. Breakfast includes pancakes and there’s a good kitchen for making your own meals and a convenience store with groceries less than 1 block away. It’s got a great social environment and we enjoyed getting to know other travelers from all over the world. At only $11USD/night, we thought it offered a good value and a great location.
  3. If you’re headed to Playa Madera (a BIG surf destination), we’d highly recommend Hostal Clandestino. This is one of our all-time favorite hostels and we stayed for 3 nights, surfing during the day and cooking and hanging out with other backpackers at night. There’s definitely a tree house vibe and it’s very conducive to meeting others. They have a yoga deck with a great view, a well-stocked kitchen, free WiFi, and several patios with hammocks. We paid $15USD/night, which was a bit high, but absolutely worth it considering the vibe, the coffee, and the well stocked kitchen. Worth noting: This hostel is at the top of a pretty big hill if you walk from the beach (10 minutes walking).

Health/Vacinations

We’re no professionals, but Passport Health USA recommends you get vaccinations for:

  1. Typhoid
  2. Hepatitis A
  3. Hepatitis B
  4. Rabies
  5. Influenza
  6. Measles, Mumps, and Rubella

When we entered the country by plane, they didn’t ask for our vaccination records, so there’s no hard requirement here.

Get Out There! 

We really enjoyed exploring Nicaragua and recommend it to backpackers for a short trip, or as part of a longer Central American journey. The corridor between Managua and Costa Rica is very easy to navigate and you can see everything from colonial cities, to volcanos, to lakes, to great beaches all within a few hours. Travel is affordable, the people are welcoming, and there’s plenty of sun to warm you up and water to cool you down.

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One response to “Nicaragua: Quick and Dirty Country Guide

  1. Pingback: Panama: Quick and Dirty Country Guide | Anemoscopio·

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