Despite being the largest country in land area in Central America and among the safest nations to visit in the region, Nicaragua has often been overshadowed by neighboring Costa Rica. During the last decade, however, Nicaragua’s tourism industry has seen an increase in both the number of tourists and the amount of glowing reviews for its experiences. A growing number of intrepid travelers have discovered the allure of the country. In 2017, the United Nations World Tourism Organization ranked Nicaragua among the top 10 World’s Fastest Growing Tourist Destinations.
In one day, you can drive past miles of lush rainforests and white-sand beaches, rows of active volcanoes, freshwater lakes and wild coastline. The country has all the classic flora and fauna that lures visitors to the tropics, yet Nicaragua is much more than nature — it’s also culturally rich, dotted by century-old vibrant towns and churches, and it offers some of the best cuisine in Central America.
Most tourists congregate in the Pacific coast towns like San Juan del Sur, where the surf rides high and the beaches seemingly go on forever. They also stop along the way for a bit of culture in the historically rich colonial cities of Granada and León.
Better still, Nicaragua offers year-round good weather and a sense of adventure awaiting at every turn. So, whether you want to channel your inner beach-bum, hit the whitecaps or soak in some colonial architecture, this stunning tropical destination will not disappoint.
Cerro Negro, in north central Nicaragua, is home to one of the youngest and most active of the country’s 19 volcanoes. Although it doesn’t rate high for beauty, Cerro Negro offers thrill seekers an irresistible pull: sledding or boarding down some gravely plume of black ash that goes on as far as the eye can see. Call them crazy, call them reckless, but every year hundreds of adrenaline chasers trek to the top of the volcano. They come by rickety buses to admire its views out over San Cristobal and Telica volcanoes, before leaping on a custom-made sandboard and whizzing down at speeds reaching up to 65 miles per hour (100 kilometres per hour).
Not far from the city of León, Nicaragua’s iconic Momotombo volcano is truly an impressive sight. A perfectly shaped cone, it last erupted in 2015 after laying dormant for 110 years. It towers 4,124 feet (1,258 meters) above sea level on the northern shores of Lake Managua. The celebrated Nicaraguan writer Rubén Darío even penned a poem about Momotombo.
Whether it’s dipping your toes into the crystal blue waters of Playa Marsella (considered one of the most beautiful beaches in the area), or paddling out onto the crashing waves of the Pacific, Nicaragua’s coastlines always deliver on its promises. It’s surf beaches in San Juan Del Sur, on the southwest coast, have gained a legendary status among international surfers for its fantastic year-round breaks. Once a sleepy fishing village, boarders are especially drawn to the ever-popular Playa Maderas, which boasts waves that will give both beginners and pros a ride to remember.
Granada’s Rich Culture
Granada is a great walkable town. Wandering its narrow streets, you feel like you’ve just been transported back in time; with its 17th-century houses, rundown courtyards and churches teeming with colonial splendor. With about 123,000 residents, Granada is Nicaragua’s sixth most populous city. It is renowned for maintaining some of the finest colonial-era architecture in the country.
Stroll through Parque Colón, a lively central plaza that buzzes with local artisans, merchants, and food vendors, before soaking in the atmosphere from a café or a picnic table in the bustling Calle La Calzada. While there, chow down on vigorón (a tasty pork and cabbage snack wrapped in banana leaf), while watching horse-drawn carriages carefully navigating the tight boulevards.
Don’t leave without a visit to the Convento San Francisco. Once a convent, it is one of the oldest churches in Central America, dating to 1525, though a fire in 1868 burned it down and a renovation completed in 1989 restored it. Highlights include Primitivist art, a scale model of the city, mysterious stone carvings, and idols made by pre-Columbian people, as well as an impressive collection of ancient sculptures.
Take a peek at the cigar-manufacturing process and even practice rolling a cigar at the Doña Elba Cigars factory. You will discover the history of tobacco, from the primitive form of cigar used by pre-Columbian Indigenous societies, through to the Spanish and British royalty, who demanded a more curated and sophisticated object to smoke.
Sightsee in San Juan Del Sur
The town of San Juan Del Sur, with its clapboard Victorian houses, towering statue of Christ of Mercy, sandy coves, and fabulous waterfront restaurants and bars, is hard to resist. Perched high on the hillside across from town, the white Christ of Mercy statue is the biggest in Central America, and one of the 10 largest in the world. Trek up to the mammoth figurine by way of the steep road and set of stairs, following the signs that read Jesus de la Divina Misericordia. At the pinnacle, you will be rewarded with sweeping 360-degree vistas of the town and crystal-clear waters of the bay below.
Monkeys, Sloths, and Exotic Birds
Nicaragua is nirvana for animal enthusiasts, especially those who smile at the prospect of viewing exotic birds, monkeys, and sloths up close and personal. If you’re lucky, you can see some beautiful birds, like the great green macaw, the motmot, and the toucan, on a rainforest tour, on a kayak, or during a boat ride. Winding through the islets of Lake Nicaragua in Granada, you can explore more than 100 islands in two hours — providing endless monkey sightings. These friendly little primates are happy to come aboard for a treat or two. Looking up into the trees, you might also spot elusive sloths. Although it is highly unlikely that you will see the country’s famous wild felines like the ocelots and jaguars.
The Cathedral of Leon
You don’t have to be pious to marvel at the stunning monolithic masterpiece that is the Cathedral of Leon. Officially known as the Basílica de la Asunción, this UNESCO World Heritage Centre is the largest cathedral in Central America. Built between 1747 and the early 19th century, it is a riveting evolution of Baroque to Neoclassical architecture, with rich embellishments to behold inside. The tomb of poet Ruben Dario, Leon’s favorite son, sits under the central nave, guarded by the golden statue of a lion. On a clear day, don’t miss the roof tour (a mere 80 cents US) for a spectacular view of the city and volcanoes looming beyond.
Historical and Laid-back Luxe Stays
For a heavenly stay in León, locals recommend Hotel El Convento. For good reason: A former convent built in 1639, this tranquil slice of paradise was reborn as a 32-room hotel built around a magnificent flowering and fountained courtyard. around a magnificent flowering and fountained courtyard. Rates: Nightly rates range from $95 to $210 (for the honeymoon suite) year long. All rates include a Nicaraguan breakfast. (All currency figures in USD.)
On Lake Nicaragua, a short boat ride transports you to Jicaro Eco-Lodge, a secluded, tranquil island eco-getaway with only nine two-story lakefront casitas of spare, treehouse-chic design. Jose Lopez, the executive chef at this blissful retreat, uses as many local ingredients as he can in his sublime reincarnations of the country’s traditional dishes. Rates: Nightly rates start at $350 in the green season (May 1 to November 30), $450 in the high season (January 6-April 30); and $750 during the holiday season (December 20 to January 5).
Nestled cross San Juan Del Sur’s crescent-shaped bay, the historic Hotel Victoriano is a stately hotel with a rich, colorful past. Looking more like it jumped off the cover of a fairy-tale book, this wooden classic dates to 1902. In 1886, it is reported that the owner at the time, British immigrant William Herbert George Cross, hosted Mark Twain in 1886. If that isn’t reason enough to lay your head down in one of the cozy refurbished suites. William Herbert George Cross, hosted Mark Twain in 1886. If that
isn’t reason enough to lay your head down in one of the cozy refurbished suites. Rates: A recent search on an online booking engine returned night rates starting at $128 for a twin room, double occupancy.