Nicaragua is often seen as the cheaper and lesser touristy neighbour of Costa Rica. More travellers flock to this Central American beauty every year and it’s not difficult to see why! From colonial towns to spouting volcanoes, from pristine beaches to rural coffee plantations, backpacking Nicaragua should definitely be on your list!
Backpacking Nicaragua: things to do and best places to visit
Probably THE showcase city of Nicaragua. Colonial architecture coincides with vibrant markets and the horse-drawn carriages around the Parque Central provide the most photogenic backdrop for the prominent yellow and white cathedral. It’s a small enough place but the relaxed vibe and the gorgeous surroundings will make you want to linger on for a while. Do not miss the Volcan Masaya, a mere 30 km away.
Find out more about the main things to do in Granada.
Where Granada instantly seduces you, then crumbling León might take a bit more of an effort at first. But you simply can’t afford to miss the most historical city of Nicaragua. This is the birthplace of the Nicaraguan Revolution and even nowadays it remains a Sandinista stronghold. If you are into revolutionary murals and history, then this is your place!
Don’t forget to take a peek into one of the many churches and take time to enjoy a “fritanga” (small outdoor, barbecue-style grill) behind the cathedral. A very local experience!
Find out more about the main things to do in León.
3. Isla de Ometepe
Two volcanic peaks rise up out of Lago de Nicaragua as you approach the island. What better way to make a first impression? You can easily spend a week here: hiking, discovering ancient petroglyphs or cycling around the island along its wide beaches and lagoons. Accommodation options blend in perfectly and apart from the tourist ghetto of Moyogalpa, you’ll be hard pressed to encounter many other travellers. Take your time to indulge!
Find out more about the main things to do on Isla de Ometepe.
4. Coffee plantations
The Northern Highlands of Nicaragua are home to the country’s massive coffee production. Matagalpa is coffee-central, but I decided to stay in the Reserva Natural Cerro Dantli-El Diablo, where coffee bushes cling to steep mountain sides, covered by cloud forest. Your morning walks are accompanied by coffee pickers on their way to work and places like La Bastilla Ecolodge support local schools and pupils, offering them a chance to get work experience in the tourism industry.
Find out more about my stay on the ecolodge.
5. Little Corn Island
Showing you a whole different side to Nicaragua, the Corn Islands have an unmistakably Caribbean feel to them, even if they are only 65km away from the mainland.
Little Corn is the smaller one and if you are looking for a “get away from it all” feeling, then look no further! Short trails lead you through a forest of palm and coconut trees to pristine, secluded beaches. No high-rise hotels here, instead a few well-blended- in accommodation options, ideal to relax and reminisce about all the beautiful sites you’ve experienced on your Nicaragua trip!
Find out more about living the easy life on Little Corn Island.
Backpacking Nicaragua: how to get around
No need to hire a car, taking public transport in Nicaragua makes for a lot of fun! You’ll be joined by locals travelling to see their family, vendors selling all kinds of things from peanuts to trinkets and I even had a preacher trying to convert the whole bus to whatever it was he was preaching!
Buses are basic, sometimes really slow, but effective. They are very cheap compared to western prices, although express buses cost a fair bit more. Bus stations in bigger cities (e.g. Managua) can be pretty chaotic, but there are always people at hand guiding you towards the right bus. You don’t need to pre-book buses.
To get to Isla de Ometepe, get a boat from San Jorge on the mainland to Moyogalpa.
To get to Little Corn Island, you need to take a flight from Managua to Big Corn Island with local carrier La Costeña. From Big Corn, collective “pangas” take you twice a day to Little Corn, it can be a pretty rough ride in windy weather!
Backpacking Nicaragua: costs
Accommodation- I stayed mostly in hostels and was amazed by the quality of them! In León and Granada, you can stay in old colonial houses, some of them with a small outdoor swimming pool, for the equivalent of 10$/ night!
Food- You won’t spend a lot of money on food either in Nicaragua if you eat at local markets or small eateries (obviously more if you go to a fancier restaurant) Expect to pay $2-$5 for a staple dish like rice, beans and chicken. In cities like León, eat at the local “fritanga”. If you fancy Western food, be aware that it’ll be double the price than a local meal.
Transport- As mentioned before, buses are cheap. Count an average of $1/hour. The “ordinario” is cheaper than the “expreso” , but it stops literally everywhere and for everyone!
I’d advise anybody to go backpacking in Nicaragua: the cheap prices mixed with the variety of the landscapes and the friendliness of the Nicaraguan people make this a country not to be missed!
Have you been? Would love to hear your experiences!