So, you’re going to Nicaragua!

That’s amazing. Congratulations. Nicaragua was unequivocally my favorite country in my 100 day trip through Central America. If you follow one of these customizable two week Nicaragua itineraries, you’ll definitely understand why.

nicaragua itinerary

I have been a raving advocate for visiting Nicaragua since I spent over a month there in the spring of 2017. Since the tourism economy in Nicaragua is budding, traveling there is still an incredibly authentic experience. In a two week Nicaragua trip you’ll eat incredible food, meet the world’s friendliest people, and explore some of the most striking and pristine landscapes in North America.

About the Itineraries


To get you excited (and make the planning process easier) I’ve put together three different itineraries for two weeks of travel in Nicaragua. Each itinerary highlights a different aspect of the country, depending on what kind of travel experience you prefer. All of them hit the three “essential” stops in Nicaragua — Granada, Isla de Ometepe, and León. They differ, though in where they spend their remaining days in the country. These itineraries are all for 12 nights and 12 days of travel in Nicaragua, which leaves room in a two week trip for an extra day and night getting to and/or from the airport.

I’ve also written up brief summaries of each of the locations, along with suggestions for what to do and where to stay there. Many of my recommendations are responsible travel options — meaning your money will be contributing to the local economy or community programs.

But first, let’s get started with some basics.

Basics of Nicaragua Travel


 
  • Flights: You’ll fly into and out of Managua, the capital city. There are no other sizable airports in Nicaragua.
  • Chicken Buses: The cheapest way to get between destinations in Nicaragua is via chicken bus. If you have a little Spanish up your sleeve, a few dollars in your pocket, and willingness to cram into beat up old seats on beat up old schoolbuses, you can get anywhere in the country! This is my preferred method of travel in Nicaragua and Central America in general, so my suggestions in these itineraries are based on chicken buses.
  • Tourist Shuttles: If you’re not into the chicken bus thing, there are tourist shuttles that will take you between the major destinations. They cost a lot more  but they’re generally more comfortable and slightly faster.
  • Currency: You should carry cash, as cards are not accepted everywhere. You’ll want to carry the local currency, the córdoba, for most purchases (but many hostels, tourism agencies, tour guides, etc. will accept U.S. dollars).

Map of Nicaragua Destinations


This interactive map shows the locations of all the essential and optional stops mentioned in this post. Click on a dot for more information and links to related Furiosities posts.

About the Essential Stops


Granada & Laguna de Apoyo

No matter what kind of trip you’re looking for, Granada is the best place to start. This polished, pastel colonial city is less than an hour away from the airport by bus or taxi. It also happens to be the epicenter of Nicaragua’s English-speaking tourism industry. You’ll find transportation, guides, and advice for going anywhere else in the country in Granada’s romantic, cobblestoned downtown. The city itself is beautiful (if somewhat inauthentic), and exploring its charming streets is a great way to ease yourself into Nicaraguan culture.

What to Do: Many of the popular tours and experiences based out of Granada are not worth your time or money on a short trip. See my past posts about Granada for more information on the tours I did in the city.

However, I do highly recommend two experiences in particular. First, take a night trip to Masaya Volcano to see (and hear!) the lava rumbling around in the crater. Most hostels and tour guides in Granada run nightly trips for about ten U.S. dollars.

Secondly, visit Laguna de Apoyo, a pristine, peaceful crater lake nearby. I personally prefer the Laguna to Nicaragua’s beach towns for spending a day relaxing on a beach, swimming, and drinking fruity cocktails.  If you would rather spend one more night in Granada, you can do Laguna de Apoyo as a day trip.

Where to Stay: Consider the excellent Hostel Oasis in Granada. Hostel Oasis has a pool, free pancake breakfasts, and reasonable tours to all the important sights around Granada. They also have transportation to and from their equally excellent sister establishment at Laguna de Apoyo, Paradiso Hostel.

Isla de Ometepe

Isla de Ometepe, in my opinion, is the single most important stop of your trip. Ometepe is an indescribably magical island in the center of Lake Nicaragua with an entirely unique life, culture, and lanscape. The figure-8 shaped island consists of two enormous, menacing volcanoes connected by a thin strip of land. The larger volcano, Volcan Concepción, is still active and coated in bare volcanic rock. The other volcano, Volcan Maderas, is inactive and covered in lush tropical cloud forests. The cloud-skimming silhouettes of the two volcanoes can be seen on the horizon for miles in every direction.

What to Do: There is an endless list of activities to explore on Ometepe. You can watch howler monkeys swing through the trees in Charco Verde, soak up the sun along Playa Santo Domingo, or watch an incredible sunset at Punta Jesus Maria.

Enjoying the sunset at Punta Jesus Maria

The one thing you must do on the island is rent a scooter. Public transport exists but is very infrequent. Trust me, as somebody who never wants to pay more than the bare minimum to get between places — a scooter is worth it. It will give you the freedom to stop and explore all of the hidden nooks and crannies of this amazing place. And the sensation of the wind in your hair as you whip down an island road toward the sunset, with a volcano on one side of you and quaint island villages and shore views on the other? You will never, ever forget it.

The summery joy of scootin’ on Ometepe

If you like hiking, you can hike either of the two volcanoes that dominate the skyline of Ometepe. Both hikes are a full-day affair, so factor that into your trip planning. I did not have time to squeeze a volcano hike into my visit, but I heard from many fellow travelers that hiking Concepción is breath-taking.

In the end, though, there are no do-or-die Ometepe sights – the most important thing is to be there and soak in the beauty and the atmosphere.

Where to Stay: I highly recommend staying at Puesta del Sol. It’s a local tourism cooperative of homestays located very close to the main port. The accommodations are charming and comfortable, the food is unbeatable, and you can be positive that your money is supporting the local economy rather than lining the pockets of foreign investors.

León

León is the second largest city in Nicaragua. It’s a beautiful colonial gem, with narrow cobblestone streets winding between pastel houses and gorgeous, elaborate churches around every corner. It’s a perfect balance between tourist-friendly and authentic. León will give you a better insight into Nicaragua city life than touristy Granada, but in a calmer, more approachable package than Managua.

Perhaps more importantly, León serves as the home base for Nicaragua’s most absurd extreme sport: volcano boarding. Volcano boarding involves climbing aboard a wooden sled and riding down the side of a volcano at full tilt. It is exactly as insane and exciting as it sounds–AND it is completely accessible to tourists.

YEEEEE HAWWWWWWW

What to Do: Spend one day exploring the streets and museums of León. The quintessential view of the city can be found from the roof of the iconic white cathedral on the main square.

the roof of leon’s cathedral

Also check out the Museo de Tradiciones y Leyendas, a museum about both traditional Nicaraguan myths and also the horrible torture and civil rights violations that were performed on prisoners during the civil war. You’ll feel somewhat uncomfortable laughing at the bizarre stories and papier-mâché statues while you’re there, but you’ll leave with a way better understanding of Nicaraguan culture and history.

If you’re an adventurous traveler, take one full day trip from León to go volcano boarding on Cerro Negro (“Black Hill”), a nearby dormant volcano completely coated in loose, crumbly ash. I suggest going with Quetzaltrekkers – they lead very safe tours and contribute their profits to local nonprofits and support systems.

Where to Stay: There are dozens of good hostels in León — check out your options on Hostelworld. If you’re looking for responsible travel options, the excellent Sonati Hostels have a location in León . All of their profits go to local environmental education and all of their paid employees are Nicaraguan.

About the Optional Stops


Miraflor

If you’re the type of traveler who wants to get deep under the skin of the country and interact with real, authentic Nicaraguan culture, you simply must visit Miraflor. The Area Protegida Miraflor is a protected mountainous region of coffee farms in northern Nicaragua. The area spans three different climate and ecosystem zones, ranging from dry lowland to cloud forest. Miraflor is also home to an amazing tourism cooperative that arranges homestays, hikes, daytrips, and other activities for tourists looking to experience rural Nicaraguan life.

I suggest spending at least two nights in Miraflor. You will spend a significant chunk of time your first and last day traveling on a rickety bus to/from nearby Estelí. Spending two nights in the villages will give you a full day to experience rural life, hike around, explore the coffee farms, and talk to your host family.

Where to Stay: You have to book your nights in Miraflor ahead of time with the tourism cooperative. The easiest way to do this is to get in touch with Treehuggers, an awesome sustainable tourism organization that arranges the homestays and activities in Miraflor. Treehuggers is based in nearby Estelí but you can email them to chat about your needs before you arrive in the city. I recommend booking two nights in El Sontule, a village in the middle ecosystem (although the highest ecosystem may sound appealing, I found the middle to be more striking and interesting.) If you’re not comfortable with Spanish, be sure to ask for English speaking hosts and/or guides for your hikes and activities.

What to Do: You are free to do whatever you like while you are in Miraflor, but you can also book a myriad of cool activities through Treehuggers. You can sign up for guided hikes, tours of coffee farms, horseback riding, and more. The guides all live in the villages you are visiting and are generally part-time farmers, so it’s a truly fascinating experience! Aside from the guided times, remember to ask your family if you can help around the farm. While I was there I helped make tortillas and learned how to milk a cow!

Estelí

Estelí is a moderately sized city in Northern Nicaragua known for cigar production and a popular university. Though the town itself is not particularly spectacular, it is the most convenient home base for getting to and from Area Protegida Miraflor. I recommend passing through Estelí on your way to Miraflor but spending a night in the city on your return. After two nights in the chilly mountains of Miraflor, you’ll appreciate a night in a warm hostel in Estelí.

What to Do: Use your evening to explore the town center and excellent street art. Check out Café Luz – it’s a mecca for artsy locals, students and travelers alike and often has live music at night. It’s also associated with Treehuggers and is a great social enterprise.

Where to Stay: I stayed in Hostel Sonati, which was a good hostel and an excellent business – all their profits go towards environmental education in the area and all their paid employees are Nicaraguan. Treehuggers also has a popular hostel associated with it called Luna International hostel, so you have many options for responsible tourism in Estelí!

San Juan del Sur & Playa Maderas

You may have heard of San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua. It has a bit of a reputation. Situated in a beautiful half-moon bay on the Pacific coast, San Juan del Sur is Nicaragua’s hottest location for young travelers to tan, surf, and dance the night away. It’s notorious for beachside clubs, hip international businesses, and thousands of drunk white tourists.

the beautiful setting of San Juan del Sur

If you’re looking for a party in Nicaragua, San Juan del Sur is definitely the place to go. You should align your trip so that you’re in San Juan during a Sunday so you can attend the infamous Sunday Funday — a day long drinking and pool-hopping marathon.

If you’re not looking for a party but you are looking for gorgeous Pacific surf, consider quieter nearby Playa Maderas. This beautiful little inlet is famous for having excellent surfing for novice surfers (and heart-stopping sunsets).

sunset at Playa Maderas

What to Do: Swim, tan, surf, drink, repeat.

Itineraries


Itinerary 1: Landscapes & Authentic local culture

Do you like to travel deep and really experience local landscapes and culture? Aside from the must-see Nicaragua destinations, this itinerary takes you to my personal favorite experience in the country: a farming homestay in the mountainous cloud forest of Miraflor.

Day
During the day …
Sleep in…

 1

Arrive and travel to Granada

Granada

 2

Explore Granada and visit Masaya Volcano by night

Granada

 3

Travel to Laguna de Apoyo and enjoy the lake for the day. Stay at the lake overnight or return to Granada.

Granada/

Laguna

de Apoyo

 4

Catch a bus to Rivas, a taxi to San Jorge, and a ferry to Ometepe. Settle into your homestay or hostel and watch an incredible Ometepe sunset (maybe at Punta Jesus Maria!)

Ometepe

 5

Rent a scooter and whizz around this incredible island all day. Stop off at Charco Verde for some howler monkey sightings on your way back home.

Ometepe

 6

Hike Volcano Concepción

Ometepe

 7

Get ready for a long day of travel. Ride the ferry back to San Jorge, catch a cab to Rivas, and then a bus to Managua, where you can catch a bus to León. Alternatively you could hire a taxi or tourist shuttle from Rivas or Granada.

León

 8

Explore León and snap some photos from the roof of the cathedral.

León

 9

Go volcano boarding! Get to bed early to prepare for an early morning.

León

 10

Get ready for another long day of travel. Catch an early morning bus to Estelí. Check in at Treehuggers about your reservation in Miraflor. They’ll direct you to the best bus to catch to get to your homestay in Miraflor that afternoon.

Miraflor

 11

Hike, explore coffee farms, or ride horses through the hills of Miraflor.

Miraflor

 12

Catch a chicken bus back to Estelí for the night. Grab a drink at Café Luz and enjoy the local music and lively atmosphere.

Estelí

 13

Catch a bus from Estelí back to Managua.

Itinerary 2: Surfing, Beaches & Parties

Not into the idea of roughin’ it on a farm in the mountains? That’s alright, it’s not for everybody. This itinerary will take you to some of Central America’s best surfing and party towns, on Nicaragua’s pacific coast.

Day
During the day …
Sleep in…

 1

Arrive and travel to Granada

Granada

 2

Explore Granada and visit Masaya Volcano by night

Granada

 3

Travel to Laguna de Apoyo and enjoy the lake for the day. Stay at the lake overnight or return to Granada.

Granada/

Apoyo

 4

Catch a bus to Rivas, a taxi to San Jorge, and a ferry to Ometepe. Settle into your homestay or hostel and watch an incredible Ometepe sunset (maybe at Punta Jesus Maria!)

Ometepe

 5

Rent a scooter and whizz around this incredible island all day. Stop off at Charco Verde for some howler monkey sightings on your way back home.

Ometepe

 6

Hike Volcano Concepción

Ometepe

 7

Ride the ferry back to San Jorge, catch a cab to Rivas, and then a bus to San Juan del Sur. If you are not staying in San Juan del Sur you can get transportation to Playa Maderas from there.

San Juan del Sur/Maderas

 8

Swim, tan, surf, drink, repeat.  

San Juan del Sur/Maderas

 9

Swim, tan, surf, drink, repeat.  

San Juan del Sur/Maderas

 10

Get ready for a long day of travel. Catch a bus to Rivas, and then a bus to Managua, where you can catch a bus to León. Alternatively you could hire a taxi or tourist shuttle from Rivas or San Juan.

León

 11

Explore León and snap some photos from the roof of the cathedral.

León

 12

Go volcano boarding!

León

 13

Catch a bus or shuttle from León back to Managua.

Itinerary 3: Hiking & Adventure

Looking to cut out the silly tourist fluff and spend your two weeks on the side of Nicaragua’s jaw-dropping mountains and volcanoes? I don’t blame you. This itinerary reduces your time in touristy Granada and adds an extra day for hiking in León or Ometepe. It also includes an excursion to Miraflor to give you a chance to trudge through coffee farms and cloud forests.

Day
During the day …
Sleep in…

 1

Arrive and travel to Granada

Granada

 2

Explore Granada and visit Masaya Volcano by night

Granada

 3

Catch a bus to Rivas, a taxi to San Jorge, and a ferry to Ometepe. Settle into your homestay or hostel and watch an incredible Ometepe sunset (maybe at Punta Jesus Maria!)

Ometepe

 4

Rent a scooter and whizz around this incredible island all day. Stop off at Charco Verde for some howler monkey sightings on your way back home.

Ometepe

 5

Hike Volcano Concepción

Ometepe

 6

Get ready for a long day of travel. Ride the ferry back to San Jorge, catch a cab to Rivas, and then a bus to Managua, where you can catch a bus to León. Alternatively you could hire a taxi or tourist shuttle from Rivas or Granada.

León

 7

Explore León and snap some photos from the roof of the cathedral.

León

 8

Go volcano boarding! Get to bed early to prepare for an early morning.

León

 9

Get ready for another long day of travel. Catch an early morning bus to Estelí. Check in at Treehuggers about your reservation in Miraflor. They’ll direct you to the best bus to catch to get to your homestay in Miraflor that afternoon.

León

 10

Hike, explore coffee farms, or ride horses through the hills of Miraflor.

Miraflor

 11

Catch a chicken bus back to Estelí for the night. Grab a drink at Café Luz and enjoy the local music and lively atmosphere.

Miraflor

 12

Catch a bus from Estelí back to Managua.

Estelí

 Extra

  Day

     Use the extra day in this itinerary for one of three options:

     ·        Add one more day in Ometepe and hike Volcan Maderas

     ·        Add one more day in León and hike nearby San Cristobal or Telica

     ·        Add an extra day of hiking in Miraflor

Have any questions or comments about any of the locations or itineraries? Leave them in the comments below!



*Disclosure: Some of the links above are affiliate links. This means that if you purchase or book something through that link, I earn a commission at no extra charge to you. Gee, thanks!


2 Comments

Adventurous Kate· March 24, 2018 at 5:49 pm

Nicaragua is my favorite country in Central America! I love your ideas, and I never made it to Miraflor and Estelí so those are priorities for next time. The only thing I would suggest is that you check out Little Corn Island sometime! It is spectacular!! Though it’s been three years; I hope it hasn’t become overtouristed yet…

cmfurio· March 25, 2018 at 8:56 pm

Oh, yeah, I felt a little bad about leaving Little Corn Island out of this. I didn’t have time to make the flight over and I had just come from six months in the tropical paradise of Belize, so I wasn’t prioritizing islands at the time….definitely on my list for my return though! Fingers crossed its still pristine when I get the chance to visit (thankfully Miraflor and Esteli are remote enough that they may never be overtouristed)

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