When most people think of Nicaragua, they associate this Central American country with political unrest, usually centering around the U.S. involvement in fighting Communists in the 80s. Because of that, Nicaragua isn’t on most people’s must-travel list. But it should be because there are truly some incredible places to visit in Nicaragua.
Yes, the country might not be quite as stable as some of the others in the region, but as long as you go in with the right expectations, it’s a place filled with some amazing hidden gems. Best of all, because it’s not littered with tourists, you don’t have to fight to see some of the most awe-inspiring spectacles that the country has to offer.
Also, it’s one of the cheapest options when visiting the region, so don’t expect to drop a fortune, even if you take in all of the sights and plan to do all the activities.
So, with that in mind, let’s take a look at the top 18 places to visit while in Nicaragua.
Town and Cities in Nicaragua
As with basically every country in Central America, Nicaragua has one major city (the capital) with a variety of other cool little towns and villages sprinkled throughout the countryside. However, unlike other countries like Guatemala or Belize, the capital of Nicaragua (Managua) doesn’t have the same historical or cultural value.
Thus, even though you’ll likely fly into Managua to start your adventure, there’s no reason to stay there for long. Indeed, most travelers spend maybe a night there (or not even) before they book it out to some of the more appealing destinations in Nicaragua. And fortunately, there are a handful of other cities in the area have a lot more to offer for the intrepid traveler.
Up until 1857, Leon served as Nicaragua’s capital. Thus, if you want to get some insight into the heritage of the country and its people, here is where you should start your journey. Leon itself is home to many of the area’s top intellectual sites, including museums, universities, and historical buildings.
To dive deeper into Nicaragua’s past, you should also take a look at Leon Viejo, which was the original site of the city. Although the Viejo side doesn’t have a lot of extravagant ruins (since they only date back to the 16th century), it’s a perfect encapsulation of how imperialism and colonialism created the country we know today.
One of the best sites to learn about more recent history is the Museum of the Revolution, which documents the civil war between the Sandinistas and the Somozas (the conflict which sparked Reagan’s actions).
Leon itself is a wonderful mix of colonial architecture, vibrant street life, endless charm, and also decay. Yes, this city is a bit grittier than some other destinations, when you see deteriorating colonial architecture, but I absolutely loved it here. There’s just something about Leon which feels more “real” than places like Granada (which I also loved).
Don’t miss out on heading to the roof of the cathedral on the town square for excellent views of the city and surrounding volcanoes (on a clear day)… It’s only a couple bucks!
San Juan Del Sur
If you’re familiar with Spanish, you’ll know that the name of this town translates to “San Juan of the South.” As the name implies, this city on the Pacific Ocean is located on the southern edge of the country, near the border with Costa Rica.
What makes the little town of San Juan del Sur so appealing is the sand and surf. You can take an airport shuttle from Managua, which will get you there in about two hours. Whether you’re a surfing pro or a novice, you can take lessons here, which cost about $25 per hour (not including the board, which is another $9).
Also, if you want to get to know the locals, there are plenty of cheap bars in and around the city to cater to all of the laid-back surfers. If you’re looking for a chill spot to call your home base during your stay in Nicaragua, San Juan del Sur is an ideal choice. Although the town itself is located on a pretty chill little bay, so the real surfing is in the surrounding areas, not right on the town’s waterfront.
That being said, it’s also just a great place to walk the beach, head up to the lighthouse, grab a beer to watch the sunset, or whatever. You’ll find tons of affordable hostels here in this little hippie beach town.
Situated on the Western side of Lake Nicaragua, Grenada has its own sketchy past. However, if you go further back beyond the 1980s, you’ll see that the city used to be integral to the Spanish colony. Today, the city is undoubtedly the country’s most popular tourist destination, as countless budget backpackers settle in along the shores of Lake Nicaragua… And can you blame them? The city is truly something quite special.
Most of the towns in Nicaragua have more modern architecture, but if you want to see something a bit more historical, Grenada is easily the most beautiful colonial city in all of Nicaragua. Not only do the buildings harken back to colonial times, but they are all brilliantly painted to help provide a more welcoming and enthusiastic vibe.
Granada is also one of the best places to experience Nicaraguan cuisine. Most people subsist on rice and beans (as with other Central American countries and most budget travelers here, for that matter), but one dish you have to try is vigoron, which is made of pork and cabbage. Best of all, it usually costs about $2 for a whole plate.
A little further West of Grenada is Masaya. The town is about the same size, but what makes it unique is that it sits at the base of a volcano (of the same name).
Masaya is another excellent choice for experiencing much of Nicaraguan culture, and you are sure to find a unique and cool souvenir to take home.
While you’re here, you will want to check out the volcano, particularly because it is still active. The climb isn’t as bad as some of the other volcanoes in the area (more on those later), so most people can get there without any problems. Be sure to go at night so that you can get a better view of the glowing lava.
Unusual Places to Visit in Nicaragua
Beyond the more conventional destinations in Nicaragua such as cool colonial cities and beautiful natural wonders, there are a few more unusual places to visit in Nicaragua that should call your attention…
The San Juan River flows out of Lake Nicaragua and forms a natural border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Along the river are several small towns, but one of the most notable is El Castillo.
What makes this village stand out is the massive fort built there to protect the lake (and the city of Granada) from pirates. The Spanish created El Castillo in 1675, although it has been sacked many times since then.
Even though the fort didn’t always succeed in doing its job, the ruins are impressive to look at, and the lush jungle surrounding the town helps transport you back to the times in which the ramparts were still active.
Prior to the construction of the Panama Canal, it was actually the San Juan River (accessible from the Caribbean Sea) which provided the main transit point from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Thousands of people during the California Gold Rush made their way to Lake Nicaragua before crossing overland to San Juan del Sur where they could hop on another boat to California. Learning things like this is what fascinates me about travel and history.
The Stone Man of El Tisey
Technically speaking, Alberto Gutierrez Jiron isn’t what you would typically consider a “natural wonder.” However, the stone carvings that he has created over the decades is more than sufficient to warrant a visit.
Alberto lives on his family’s coffee plantation, and for the last 30-plus years, he has painstakingly carved a variety of images into the cliff overlooking the property. Jaguars, elephants, snakes, and biblical characters are just a few of the reliefs you can expect to see. Many of the images were allegedly inspired by God, according to the man.
While gazing on these carvings is free, Alberto does take donations. He receives a lot of visitors throughout the year, so he is more than accommodating, offering fruit and water to anyone who stops by. It can take a little while to get there, but it’s a one-of-a-kind experience that you can only find here, in the Tisey Estanzuela reserve. Watch here to learn more about Alberto and his work.
Natural Wonders of Nicaragua
No matter which Central American country you visit, each one has some incredible natural beauty to it. From the Cays of Belize to the Mayan ruins of Mexico and Guatemala, each place has a unique blend of flora and fauna to create a mesmerizing experience.
Although Nicaragua is short on ruins, it has a lot of exquisite jungles and wild habitats for you to explore. The massive Lake Nicaragua on the Southern end is worth traveling to by itself, but there are plenty of other hidden jewels waiting to be found. Here are a few top picks.
The stone man lives relatively close to Esteli, which is in the Northern half of the country. Since you’ll likely be going there anyway, you may as well head East and visit Miraflores Natural Reserve.
You can take a single or multi-day hike through the lush jungle and cloud forest, and you’ll be glad you did. We highly recommend spending more than a day exploring the area if possible, since there are so many different elements to see on your hike.
As with many of the spots on this list, tourists are in short supply. In most cases, you will be all alone during your trek, making you feel as if you’re an intrepid explorer back in colonial times. Experiencing the jungle this way makes it far more impactful.
Compared to most Lakes, Lake Nicaragua is one of the largest in the world. The biggest island in the lake is Isla Ometepe, and it’s definitely worth a day or two of exploration. To get here, you’ll have to take a ferry from San Jorge to Moyogalpa and from there you can set out to explore. The island has two volcanoes on it – one active and one mostly dormant.
During your travels here, you’ll come across a variety of wildlife, as well as waterfalls, kayaking, horseback riding, and the best beach on the island – Playa Santo Domingo. I’d highly recommend staying on the island for sunset, as it’s one of the best places to watch it.
I was particularly blown away by the sunset on Punta Jesus Maria, which is a narrow spit that juts out into the lake and provides a pretty epic spot to catch the sun’s last rays.