K.C. was a featured writer for Yahoo! Travel before joining trips to discover in 2013. She is the author of Best Travel Guide for First Time Visitors to Ireland, an Amazon bestseller every year between 2013 and 2016. She has been a featured expert on Newsweek, Travel + Leisure, Travelocity, among others.
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An increasing number of travelers are discovering the many delights of Nicaragua, the largest country in Central America. With lively colonial cities, friendly people, mouthwatering cuisine, and a cornucopia of natural wonders, if this budget-friendly destination is not on your travel bucket list, it should be. The landscapes are stunning, with unspoiled rainforests, waterfalls, golden sandy beaches, and towering volcanoes, while the abundant wildlife brings the chance to spot everything from sea turtles that glide among coral reefs to sloths, jaguars, and toucans. When planning your itinerary, you’ll want to include at least some of these top places to visit in Nicaragua.
One of the world’s most underrated vacation destinations, Granada is a safe, warm, and welcoming city known for its brightly painted Andalusian-style Spanish colonial homes. Founded in 1524, it’s the oldest city in Central America, set along the western banks of Lake Nicaragua, with cobbled streets and colorful, centuries-old buildings making it fabulous to explore. Horse-drawn carriage rides are available when your feet need a break, and you’ll find a wealth of museums, galleries, and markets to explore. The heart of the city is the main drag, Calle la Calzada, a pedestrianized street lined with shops, cafes, and restaurants while providing the chance to be immersed in local daily life. You’ll want to stop for a cold Toña, the local beer, while enjoying the street performers and people-watching.
Located 45 miles off the coast of Nicaragua in the Caribbean Sea and one of the world’s best car-free vacation destinations, the Corn Islands are a great place to enjoy a tropical atmosphere while disconnecting from the modern world. This is a place where you might feel as if you’ve gone back in time to the Caribbean 50 years ago, with even electricity limited here. Little Corn Island loses power during the day, but with the help of generators, your average beach bungalow-style accommodation won’t have electricity from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. But who needs power when you’re surrounded by breathtaking nature, including lush jungle and pristine beaches with crystal-clear blue waters home to sea turtles, dolphins, colorful fish, and incredible coral formations? After a day of play, the open-air, thatched-roof cafes are the perfect place to relax with a refreshing drink and then enjoy daily fresh-caught lobster at one of the mom-and-pop eateries.
The world’s largest island and one of Central America’s top attractions, Ometepe was formed by two volcanoes with its twin peaks rising above Lake Nicaragua and encircled by freshwater sandy beaches. With various tribes populating the area during the pre-Columbian era, there are also a large number of petroglyphs and stone idols distributed throughout the island, making it a must-visit for anyone with an interest in archaeology and culture. It’s also a paradise for hikers, climbers, and mountain bikers, as well as home to abundant wildlife, including lots of howler and capuchin monkeys. Moyogalpa is the largest town and the island’s main commercial center, providing a good base for exploring, including being a good starting point for a walk to Concepción Volcano.
León is Nicaragua’s second-largest city, its artistic and intellectual heart, and the colonial capital for three centuries. It’s filled with Spanish colonial architecture, some of it crumbling, adding to the character. You’ll also find the finest contemporary art in Central America, a cosmopolitan dining scene, and buzzing nightlife, thanks to the large student population. Some of the top spots include the UNESCO-listed Cathedral of León, the largest temple in Central America, and El Cavario Church, one of the city’s most striking colonial churches with its multi-colored facade standing out even from a distance. The Museo Histórico de la Revolución is considered a must-visit, focused on those who challenged the Somoza dictatorship.
One of the top wildlife viewing experiences in the country can be enjoyed at the Los Guatuzos Wildlife Refuge, which sits along the southern shores of Lake Nicaragua in San Carlos, part of the Rio San Juan Department. There are more than a dozen rivers that run through, with boat tours available on the picturesque Rio Papaturro, bringing the chance to enjoy a haven for birdlife, including parakeets, cormorants, blue and green heron, great egrets, and more, along with a healthy population of turtles, iguanas, caiman, and alligators while three species of monkeys can often be seen swinging through the trees.
San Juan de Oriente is one of the white villages in Nicaragua, which is spread across a highland mesa that connects to rims of extinct volcanoes and is known for its skilled artisans. Each of its towns has its own specialized craft, with San Juan de Oriente famous for its pottery that has won international awards. There are many artisan pottery shops where you can buy handmade pieces for very reasonable prices, from recreated pre-Columbian jaguar vessels of Gregorio Bracamonte to the impressive geometric designs of Helio Gutiérrez. Some of the other white villages to visit include Diriomo, known for its sweets and its stone church, while Catarina is famed for its baskets, potted plants, and unique view of Apoyo Crater Lake.
The Pearl Cays is a group of 18 cays located about 22 miles off Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast from the town of Pearl Lagoon. These secluded islands provide an ideal place for a day trip where you’ll be immersed in a fantasy-like tropical scene. Private boat tours can bring you there to enjoy the white sands edged by clear turquoise water and dotted with shady palms. Many of the Pearl Cays are sheltered by coral reefs, creating shallow lagoons that are ideal for paddleboarding and snorkeling. The water is incredibly clear, with stonefish, snapper, and grunt. Stick around until dusk with the views even more magical as the sky glows a soft pink hue as the sun sets to the west.
Masaya Volcano National Park includes two volcanoes and five craters, bringing the chance to witness bubbling lava, a highlight of any trip to Nicaragua. Santiago Crater is the park’s main crater and is accessible by car via an asphalt road, making it easy to observe the lake of incandescent lava. It’s one of the world’s few places where the phenomenon can be seen while being easily accessible. After viewing and perhaps hiking the trails along the slopes of Masaya, where you might spot wildlife like deer, monkeys, and iguanas, you can drive to nearby Laguna de Apoyo for a refreshing dip. The town of Masaya hosts a handicraft market worth visiting that sits inside an old fort near the central park.
The 730,000 hectares of land collectively known as Bosawás is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve within the municipalities of Waspám, Bonanza, Siuna, El Cuá-Bocay, Wiwilí, and Waslala. It’s second in size only to Brazil’s protected rainforest and is made up of dense jungle that’s bisected by rivers, serving as a critical wildlife corridor for migrating species. More than 600 of the 790 bird species in the country inhabit this area, including harpy eagles, and it’s also home to spider monkeys, Baird’s tapirs, and jaguars. You’ll want to explore on a guided hike that can be arranged via the ranger stations at Siuna or El Hormiguero.
Jinotega is known as the City of the Mists, surrounded by cloud forest-covered mountains. When the mists roll down from the lush, surrounding hills and envelope the cobbled streets, it’s especially picturesque, although the most impressive view is enjoyed as you make your way here on the road from Matagalpa, one of the most breathtaking in the country, with mountain views that stretch as far as Momotombo Volcano in León. This is the heart of the country’s coffee industry, providing an ideal base for visiting coffee farms in nearby villages and even joining in on the harvest at places like El Jaguar in San Rafael del Norte or Selva Negra in Matagalpa. This is also a great place to hike, to places like the Cerro El Tigre mountain, and to waterfalls, including San Jacinto, a stunning waterfall that cascades down a steep cliff.
The most popular beach town in San Juan del Sur, this is a place to enjoy the laid-back beach life, including great surfing at Playa Maderas and Playa Hermosa, which offer consistently outstanding waves. There are smaller swells for beginners and plenty for the advanced, too. It’s become a popular place to party, with many international visitors coming to bar hop and sip drinks poolside, but there are plenty of other things to do too, including the ATV tours and hikes to the Christ of the Mercy statue, one of the world’s tallest of its kind at 77 feet tall, while also offering an unbeatable panoramic view. Between July and January, at nearby La Flor Beach, you’ll have the chance to see baby turtles hatch and make their journey toward the ocean.
Popoyo is an up-and-coming surf town that’s starting to give competition to San Juan del Sur. The tiny beach town sits on the west coast, about two hours from its rival, and is said to often have even better surf with an atmosphere that’s been compared to San Juan del Sur 20 years ago. This is where you’ll want to go if you want to avoid the tourist crowds and waves for all experience levels. Beginners might take advantage of one of the hostel/surf houses, which offer daily lessons. Horseback riding excursions with authentic Nicaraguan gauchos are available for unique tours that ride across gorgeous beaches and into the hills, where you can spot monkeys in the trees. While there are limited facilities in Popoyo, you’ll be able to enjoy colorful sunsets with a cold beer in beachfront bars with a great atmosphere.