Backpacking Nicaragua: Top experiences
- Hiking up Volcán Maderas
- Visit one of the best beaches in Nicaragua and the world’s best hippie hangout at Playa Jiquilillo
- Swimming, jumping, and hiking through Somoto Canyon
- Volcano boarding down the side of Cerro Negro
- Getting a break from the tropics in the highland town of Matagalpa
Jump to the list of posts from Nicaragua, or read on for my comprehensive Nicaragua travel guide.
Nicaragua Itinerary Ideas
The typical Nicaragua itinerary involves some beach time, some adventure/nature activities, and some time exploring colonial cities. If you stick to the usual tourist circuit, you can easily fit all of those things in within a week. Getting off the beaten path requires more time.
If you have one week, start your Nicaragua backpacking adventure in Granada. Then head to San Juan del Sur or the surrounding beaches for some surf and sun. Finally, take the boat out to Isla de Ometepe and hike one of the iconic island’s twin volcanoes. Stop in Masaya on the way home for some shopping and glimpses of the epic volcano just outside the city center.
With two weeks, go north from Managua to the revolutionary city of Leon. You can go “volcano boarding” or just soak up the culture. Some of the best beaches in Nicaragua are also near Leon. Then, visit coffee country — start in Esteli, do a day trip to Somoto Canyon, and finish your trip in Matagalpa (an easy bus trip back to Managua).
If you have even more time for backpacking Nicaragua, you can explore the eastern 75% of the country. Most backpackers’ exposure to eastern Nicaragua amounts to a flight across the country and a couple days on Little Corn Island. You could tack this onto the two-week Nicaragua itinerary above.
The slow, overland route through the east is more difficult, and potentially less safe. The best option is a boat down the Rio San Juan. Budget two weeks in total for this trip, bring lots of cash, and only attempt it in dry season. Note that while it used to be possible to take a boat across Lake Nicaragua to cut down on bus journey time along this route, the construction of a canal on the east side has disrupted travel routes. Seek local information before attempting this.
Nicaragua Weather and When to Visit Nicaragua
As a tropical country, weather in Nicaragua follows a wet season-dry season pattern, with minimal temperature variation.
The best time to visit Nicaragua is between December and April. Starting in February, it can get brutally hot. You should still expect some rain in the cloud forests (like on Ometepe’s volcanoes or in coffee country). Severe windstorms can cause delays and cancellations on the ferry to Ometepe and flights to and from the Corn Islands.
Unless you’re a serious surfer, you should avoid rainy season — May through October. While the weather is cooler, the roads are a mess and some areas (especially in the east) become inaccessible. However, this is prime surfing season in San Juan del Sur and other Nicaragua beach towns, and you should book accommodation in advance at those places.
While it’s technically shoulder season, November is not the best time to visit Nicaragua. You should avoid the Caribbean entirely if you choose to come at this time — it’s hurricane season, and the infrastructure is not good enough to withstand heavy storms.
Language in Nicaragua
The most common language you’ll encounter while backpacking Nicaragua is Spanish. The local dialect is very easy to understand for beginning Spanish speakers, and people speak slowly, especially when communicating with gringos.
If you venture to the east, you may encounter some folks who speak an indigenous language as their first language. Most of them also speak and understand Spanish fluently, but learning simple phrases like “hello” and “thank you” goes a long way toward making friends.
Some people who work in the tourism industry speak good English, while others don’t. If you’re backpacking Nicaragua on a budget, you rarely have a guarantee of an English-speaking guide on cheap adventure tours. And outside the tourism industry English is rare. In short, it’s definitely worth picking up some basic Spanish before you travel to Nicaragua.
Budget for Backpacking Nicaragua
Day-to-day life and travel while backpacking Nicaragua is affordable. Activities really add up. To keep costs down, spend a few days in cities like Leon and Matagalpa, where the only expenses are food, hostels, and $0.25 museum admissions. Chilling at the best beaches in Nicaragua can also help you stick with your Nicaragua backpacking budget.
Bed in a shared dorm room: $8
Private room in a hostel: $25
Street-stall or market meal of the day: $4
Cup of coffee: $1
Large beer from a shop or at your hostel: $1
Museum or historical site admission: $0.25
Adventure tour/hiking trip/surfing lesson: $20
3-hour chicken bus ride: $3
Ferry to Ometepe: $2.50
Nicaragua Visa Requirements
Most people do not need a Nicaragua visa if they’re only staying for 90 days. You will need to pay a $10 “tourist tax” when you arrive, although it’s often built into the price of your plane ticket if you take a flight to Nicaragua. Overland travelers may face a barrage of additional processing fees adding up to $5 or so. Some of these are legit, others questionably so.
The period covered by your Nicaragua visa technically also applies to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras (i.e. if you get a 90 day stamp, you can spend 90 days in those four countries combined). If you need more time than that, you can get it with a 3-day visa run to Costa Rica.
Accommodation in Nicaragua
Nicaraguan accommodation is good-value at the low end of the price spectrum.
The cheapest dorms run about $7 a night. If you do your research and book in advance, you can find some of the world’s best hostels in Nicaragua — including my all-time favorite, Rancho Esperanza at Playa Jiquilillo. But don’t expect to show up in San Juan del Sur in January without a reservation and get a great place to stay.
Private rooms generally cost about double what a dorm costs. Private bathrooms are the norm — where you can find them, shared bathrooms take $5 off the price of the room. Look for private rooms in Nicaragua hostels if you want traveler amenities like great shared spaces, social atmospheres and good travel information. Some of my favorites were Hostal la Buena Onda in Matagalpa and Hostal la Tortuga Booluda in Leon.
Air conditioning is pretty rare at Nicaragua hostels. Prepare for some sweaty nights and always verify that the fan in your room works.
Food in Nicaragua
Food is definitely not one of the Nicaragua highlights. While you can find great traveler cafes, the local food can be hard to stomach — especially if you’re a vegetarian.
Beans and rice, locally referred to as “gallo pinto,” is the most common dish. Locals eat it on its own for breakfast and as a side dish for lunch and dinner.
The best-value lunchtime meals are set menus in the markets, where you’ll get soup, a drink, gallo pinto, fried plantains and a serving of grilled meat for about $3.
In the evenings, fritangas (grills) replace market stalls as the source of cheap food for Nicaragua backpacking. You can pick and choose whatever you want from their trays, and you’re charged by what you select. A large plate of gallo pinto, veggies, plantains and cheese runs about $3. Add meat for another $1.
At some of the more remote backpacker places, you’ll have no choice but to eat at their restaurants. The food is usually really good, but it’s not super-cheap. Figure on $6-ish per meal. Sometimes you’ll have a limited menu to choose from. More remote places (like Playa Jiquilillo) only offer one (usually vegetarian) dish a day.
Drinks in Nicaragua
There’s no denying it — Nicaragua is serious coffee country. One of the biggest perks of backpacking Nicaragua is that even in remote places, even in a country with so few American-style comforts, you can get an amazing cappuccino for about $1. The Garden Cafe is my absolute favorite place in the country for a caffeine fix (and their food is great, too).
Beer is widely available in Nicaragua, although getting a cold one can be tough. It’s cheapest to buy it from a shop or your guesthouse and enjoy it while relaxing in a hammock. Bars charge quite a bit more and honestly, the atmosphere is rarely as good.
Activities in Nicaragua
The variety of activities and day trips on offer while backpacking Nicaragua is endless. You can “volcano board” (like sledding, but on a volcano) in Leon, kayak around the mangrove forest at Jiquilillo, swim and hike through Somoto Canyon, trek in Selva Negra, climb Volcán Maderas, learn to surf in San Juan del Sur, and more.
The price for each of those activities — whether it’s a one-hour boat trip or a ten-hour trek — is uniformly $20. Guides will expect tips.
Most activities must be done through a tour. (A “tour” can be as simple as one or two people with a guide.) This is largely due to the safety situation in Nicaragua. Crime is still disturbingly common in remote areas. Hiking in Nicaragua can be especially sketchy on your own — trails are not well-maintained. The price is generally per group, not per person — form travel groups before signing up to keep your costs down.
Generally what you pay for is someone to walk/kayak/swim in front of you, keep you safe, and make sure you don’t get lost — not necessarily to give you in-depth information. Many guides do not speak English, so if you’re not a comfortable Spanish-speaker, make sure someone in your group is. Some trips even require you to navigate to the beginning of the adventure via multi-hour bus trip before you meet your guide — Somoto Canyon is the best example of this.
If you’re intent on hiking in Nicaragua alone, the protected area of Selva Negra (near Matagalpa) is the safest place.
Transportation in Nicaragua
When you’re backpacking Nicaragua, you’ll find that chicken buses go everywhere. The good news: they’re safe and reliable. The bad news: they’re very uncomfortable. They will be packed to the gills while they crawl up the mountains at 15 km/hour. They will carry chickens/screaming babies/old drunk men who will just happen to sit next to or on top of you — if you’re lucky enough to get a seat at all.
You can take backpacker shuttles to some destinations. This is especially common from Granada to San Juan del Sur. These shuttles are expensive and take only marginally less time than public buses. Much of the transport into and out of Leon is also on minibuses, but they’re public minibuses that cost about the same as the chicken buses.
The ferries providing access to Ometepe and the Corn Islands are sometimes unable to run due to high winds. Give yourself a buffer day before your international flight. If the weather looks bad or the sea seems choppy, don’t get on the boat even if it’s running — last year a ferry sank and killed 13 people near Little Corn Island because a captain ignored warnings of bad weather. When possible, choose a bigger ferry over smaller wooden boats.
Safety when Backpacking Nicaragua
Until this year, Nicaragua had a reputation as the safest country in Central America. Now, new political instability is calling that into question — the British government is currently advising against all travel. If you still want to go on a Nicaragua backpacking trip now, get up to speed on what’s going on, stay plugged into the news, and avoid large demonstrations if you see them.
Even in quieter political times, you’ll need to keep your guard up higher than in other popular backpacking destinations like Southeast Asia or Europe.
A few specific things to be aware of while backpacking Nicaragua:
- Taxi robbery is no longer a major threat, but it does still happen. Arrange an airport pickup when you arrive in Managua (most flights arrive at night). Keep your backpack/luggage with you instead of putting it in the trunk. If anyone else is in the taxi other than your driver, that’s a red flag. I almost got taxi-robbed in Chinandega — luckily I’d kept my backpack with me and was able to jump out at a red light.
- It’s not safe to walk on Nicaragua beaches with anything on your person. You will get robbed. This happened to someone at my guesthouse who had his phone on him, which was pretty dumb. But it also happened to someone who was carrying his flip-flops with him.
- In Matagalpa, I was told not to do the day hikes around town without a group of at least four people. Robbers frequently target solo gringos on this trail.
- The trails on the Ometepe volcanoes are slippery, muddy, and not well-marked. Guides are required and necessary — don’t even consider going without one. Maderas is the shorter hike, but it’s also the more difficult one. It includes a long and very wet near-vertical section that you’ll pull yourself up using tree roots. When you get to the summit, you’ll be immersed in so much fog that you won’t even be able to see that the drop-off into the crater is mere inches from the trail. The San Ramon Waterfall hike is a beautiful alternative if you want something less strenuous.
- No one is going to look out for your safety on adventure tours or when you’re hiking in Nicaragua other than you and your guide. If you’re traveling without a guide, seek local advice on where is safe to hike/swim/surf. Many people injure themselves at Somoto Canyon by jumping off rocks where the water isn’t deep enough.
- Nicaragua hostels are usually pretty secure, but some beach accommodation may be easy to break into. Lock up your stuff if you’re staying in a dorm.
Nicaragua travel advice for women alone
Backpacking Nicaragua is generally fine for women alone. The main issue for me was feeling much more vulnerable as a target for robberies. I arrived a few places (Matagalpa, Masaya, and Granada) after dark, which was unnerving.
I found it very easy to make friends with local women in Nicaragua. Expect to get questions about why you’re not married and where your kids are. Knowing how to complain about an ex-boyfriend in Spanish proved to be a pretty great icebreaker — 20-something Nica women are hopelessly romantic and they all have a melodramatic heartbreak story.
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