Travelers heading to Central America often overlook Nicaragua in pursuit of well-traveled tourist destinations such as Costa Rica, Panama or Belize. Few realize that Nicaragua offers much to be desired for travelers seeking beautiful beaches, active wildlife, a plethora of eco-adventure activities, and vibrant Latin culture. Nicaragua tourist attractions are plentiful and it’s far less crowded than many other beach destinations. Below is our list of 52 things to do in Nicaragua that should be at the top of your bucket list.
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Before I jump into all the fabulous things to do in Nicaragua, some of you may be wondering if is it safe to travel to Nicaragua. I have a section at the bottom of this article focused on the topic of “is Nicaragua safe” and I know you’ll like the answer! But first, enjoy the wonderful lists of what to do on a Nicaragua vacation!
52 Things to do in Nicaragua
If you’re seeking sun and surf, then head straight to San Juan del Sur, the country’s most popular beach town. If browsing art galleries and colonial architecture is more your style, then you won’t want to miss Granada, Nicaragua’s oldest colonial city. Either way, this list has you covered.
Below, find our favorite 52 tips and things to do in Nicaragua. If you are planning a Nicaragua vacation, we hope this list will inspire you to see and do more in this gorgeous Central American country!
Things to do in San Juan del Sur
San Juan del Sur is the most popular destination in the country and has an abundance of Nicaragua tourist attractions. The main draw is the always beautiful San Juan del Sur beach!
- Capture a bird’s eye view of San Juan del Sur by souring through the trees at Da Flying Frog Canopy Tour. With 16 cables covering 2.5 km, this is a zip-lining adventure that will have your adrenaline pumping.
- Grab your cowboy boots and saddle up for a horseback ride through the jungle to the beach. Rancho Chilamate Horseback Tours offer an authentic essence of Nicaragua’s countryside. They also take incredibly good care of their animals and donate a portion of every ride to their local community development fund.
- Spot a howler monkey. They’re native to Nicaragua and travel in packs through the trees surrounding San Juan del Sur. Famous for their loud howls; you’re likely to hear them before you see them.
- Sail away to Playa Blanca on a catamaran with Nica Sail & Surf . A half-day sail includes all-you-can-drink fruity rum drinks and appetizers. Sailing excursions depart daily depending on the weather. This adventure may end up being the best day of your life.
- Hop in a “panga” (a Nicaraguan fishing boat) and catch a Dorado. Or a Roosterfish. Or a Tuna. Or a Mackerel. The Pacific port town of San Juan del Sur is famous for its’ in-shore fishing. You can find a range reels, tackle and modern rods at San Juan del Sur Surf & Sport.
- Or fish like the locals and try your hand at the traditional line-wrapped-around-a-piece-of-wood method of fishing. The rocky ridge on the southern edge of San Juan’s bay is packed with local fishermen from sunrise to sunset.
- Another way to make friends with the locals is to bring a soccer ball to the beach. Each afternoon during the ocean’s low tide, pick-up soccer games take place around sunset. Most locals don’t work on Sundays so you’ll find the beach packed with players on weekends.
- Take a surf lesson from a local at Playa Maderas (Maderas Beach), Nicaragua’s surf haven. You’ll find multiple surf shops with friendly and knowledgeable instructors, as well as surfboards to rent at the beach. Beach shuttles are available at any surf shop in town for a small fare.
- Swing in a hammock at Playa Hermosa. You’ll find plenty to choose from hanging from the trees and palapas at Playa Hermosa. Unlike most other nearby beaches, Playa Hermosa is private and charges a meager entrance fee for use of bathroom and shower facilities. This is a great beach for families with kids. There’s also a restaurant, bar, surf shop and solar powered eco-lodge located on the beach if you find it hard to leave. And here’s another fun fact – Playa Hermosa was one of the primary filming locations for three separate seasons of the American CBS Reality Television series Survivor.
- Drink a “Macuá” at Buen Gusto on San Juan del Sur’s Malecón. The national drink of Nicaragua is a mix of guava, lime and orange juice with “Extra Light” Flor de Caña Like Mai Tais in Hawaii and margaritas in Mexico, around here the Macuá is the drink of choice during sunset.
- Taste “Tostones y queso” at nearly any Nicaraguan restaurant. They’re widely accepted as Nicaragua’s most popular appetizer made of grilled plantains topped with fried local cheese.
- Take a Spanish lesson (or several) at SpanishYa. San Juan del Sur’s best locally owned and operated Spanish school. They also offer homestays and long-distance language lessons over the phone or Internet to prepare for your trip to Nicaragua.
- Take a dip in one of the three infinity pools overlooking the Pacific Ocean at Pelican Eyes Resort. This luxury resort is within walking distance from town and offers day passes for pool use. The onsite restaurant is one of the best in town.
- Stretch your muscles and meditate on gratitude at Zen Yoga. This outdoor yoga studio located in the heart of town offers daily classes including a variety of levels and styles.
- Salsa dance to live local music at a beachfront bar. Every Thursday night El Timon Restaurant provides live music, a Folklore Cultural Show, and a free salsa lesson. The weekly entertainment starts at 7:30pm. The restaurant serves an excellent variety of seafood as well!
- Watch a live “futbal sala” (court soccer) match at the Sports Park near the beachfront. Games usually take place at night under the stadium lights on the south end of the Malecón.
- Relax and enjoy a massage at Gaby’s Spa & Massage Studio. The spa is 100% locally owned and operated by Nicaraguan residents. It’s located in the center of town. Massages are booked by appointment.
- Drink fresh coconut water out of a coconut. You’ll find coconut vendors pushing carts around the streets downtown. Don’t be worried when the vendor takes out his machete to cut off the top of the coconut. After drinking the water, you can also eat the pulp inside.
- Taste unusual tropical fruits native to region. Local markets in Nicaragua typically offer a selection of seasonal fruits like pineapples, mangos, pitayas (dragon fruit), papaya, nispero, mamon chino, calala, jocote and tamarindo. The fruits are sold seasonally; therefore whatever you see is likely to be fresh and locally grown.
- Take a photo of a Guardabarranco (Motmot), Nicaragua’s national bird. You’ll recognize them by their long turquoise blue tail feathers.
- Visit La Flor Widlife Refuge to see the olive ridley, hawksbill, leatherback, and green sea turtles lay eggs in mass between July and December. Each year more than 100,000 olive ridley turtles nest on the sandy shore of La Flor.
- Volunteer at the Biblioteca Mobil (Mobile Library) to help staff members distribute books to nearby local public schools. The library has over 12,000 books for lending but is always in need of more Spanish books for children under 12 years. Donations of books, school supplies, and cash are encouraged.
- Listen to live Latin music on the beach. There’s nothing quite like the combination of live music against the backdrop of crashing waves. In San Juan del Sur it’s possible to find a live band playing every night. The schedule changes weekly but can be found upon arrival by picking up the latest weekly edition of the Del Sur newspaper at almost any local restaurant or hotel.
- Retrace the steps of Mark Twain by visiting the Hotel Victoriano. This hotel was once the private mansion of the Somoza family. The building dates as far back as 1882. It is believed that the beloved Nicaraguan poet Ruben Darío stayed in the house in 1884, as did Mark Twain.
- Eat an entire Pescado Entero (whole fish). If you love seafood, you’ve come to the right place. San Juan del Sur does seafood well and there’s no better place to taste this delicacy. The whole fish can be either grilled or fried, and is typically served with a combination of rice, beans, and plantains.
- Visit San Juan del Sur’s version of the Christ de Redeemer statue standing high upon the hill on the north end of the bay. Towering 77.8 feet tall, it offers an incredible 360 degrees view of the town, sounding bay and southern Pacific coastline. On a clear day you can see the silhouette of Costa Rica in the distance. Visiting hours are 8am to 5pm daily.
- Celebrate Fiestas Patrias (Independence Day) on September 14 – 15, honoring Nicaragua’s independence from Spain in 1821. Marching bands and parades of children line the city streets.
San Juan del Sur Hotels
The #1 rated hotel on TripAdvisor in San Juan del Sur is Morgan’s Rock Hacienda and Ecolodge.
Things to do in Granada
Granada is Nicaragua’s oldest colonial city. This is a great city for Nicaragua tourist attractions if you love art galleries and colonial architecture.
- Visit all 3 major Catholic cathedrals in Granada. You can’t miss the big yellow Cathedral of Granada at Central Park. However many travelers miss the 300-year-old La Merced and Iglesia de Guadalupe which was once used as a fortress by William Walker in 1856 during the infamous American filibuster.
- Embark on a boat tour through Granada’s 365 islands on Lake Nicaragua. The islands, or isletas as the local refer to them, were formed by a volcanic eruption from Volcan Mombacho (Mombacho Volcano) over 20,000 years ago. Here’s a fact about Lake Nicaragua: It’s one of the only lakes in the world with freshwater bull sharks. Don’t worry though; they are not aggressive towards humans.
- Taste bean to bar handmade chocolate at Granada’s ChocoMuseo (Chocolate Museum). You can learn about the history of the cocoa bean from the Mayans and Aztecs, try your hand at grinding the beans and taste a variety of chocolate delights.
- Stroll down Calle La Calzada (Calzada Street) in the heart of Granada’s historic district. The pedestrian-only street is lined with art galleries, watering holes and Nicaraguan flavored restaurants. Start at the Parque Colon de Granada, Nicaragua’s Central Park, and make your way all the way down to Iglesia de Guadalupe on the edge of Lake Nicaragua.
- Buy a hammock at Tio Antonio’s Central Social. Hammocks sold here are all hand-made by people with impaired hearing. Proceeds from sales support the social mission to empower and improve the lives of people with disabilities in Nicaragua. You can also learn how to weave a hammock.
- Roll your own cigar at Dona Elba’s Cigars in Granada. Whether you love cigars or just want to learn about the history of tobacco and cigar production in the country, experts agree that Dona Elba’s are some of the best in the country. You can also purchase world-class cigars here for a fraction of the price.
- Hike through a cloud forest atop Volcan Mombacho (Mombacho Volcano). Measuring 4409 feet high, you’ll definitely feel a change in climate and drop in temperature as you climb in elevation. The Mombacho nature reserve is a nationally recognized and protected reserve in Nicaragua. There are a variety of trails to hike around one of the volcano’s 4 craters. You can also stop at a coffee plantation mid-way to taste a local brew.
- Browse through Granada’s best fair-trade gift shop at the Garden Café. The shop is a gold mine for conscious consumers offering a plethora of handmade jewelry, local art, and locally sourced coffee from Nicaraguan artisans and local cooperatives. The restaurant on site is also one of the best in Nicaragua.
- Swim in Laguna de Apoyo, a water-filled volcanic crater. The lake is estimated to be 200 meters deep and nearly 4 miles in diameter. The Monkey Hut Hostel offers daytime use of their private beachfront. They require a small entrance fee that includes use of bathrooms, kayaks, inner tubes, and a floating dock. There’s also a restaurant and bar on-site to purchase food and beverages.
- Walk on the rooftop of the Leon’s Basílica de la Asunción, the largest cathedral in Nicaragua. Dating back to 1747, the cathedral took over a century to complete. The whitewashed rooftop offers some of the best views of the city.
- Volcano board down Cerro Negro Warning: This is not for the faint of heart. The hike up the volcano is strenuous and completely exposed to the sun making it extremely hot. The black volcanic rock can also cut your feet so if you go, wear closed-toed shoes.
- Pay your respects to Nicaragua’s most famous poet at the Museo Rubén Darío (Rubén Darío Museum). Rubén Darío’s childhood home was transformed into a museum and declared a national monument in 1964. Now visitors can see where he lived the first 14 years of his life when he started writing poetry.
- Visit the Plaza de la Revolución (Revolution Plaza) in Managua to see Nicaragua’s most notable historic square where many presidential speeches and political rallies still take place today. In the square you’ll find the Palacio de la Cultura (National Palace) and the Antigua Catedral de Managua (Cathedral of Managua) that was severely damaged in the devastating earthquake of 1972.
- Learn the history of the Sandinista political party at the Monumento a Sandino at the top of Tiscapa Hill in the capital city of Managua. The 59-foot tall statue is a silhouette of Augusto Cesar Sandino, Nicaragua’s most famous revolutionary hero from which the Sandinista’s attribute their name.
More Regions of Nicaragua
- Buy a painting, ceramic bowl or hand-woven bracelet from a local artisan at the Mercado de Artesanías de Masaya (Masaya Craft Market and Cultural Center). The market is located in the center of town of Masaya and is easily paired with a visit to the nearby Masaya Volcano. You will also find vendors selling excellent made to order smoothies with your choice of fresh tropical fruit.
- Visit Parque Nacional Volcán Masaya (Masaya Volcano national park) located within the small town of Masaya. The volcano is one of the most active in the region. Walk to the edge of the rim and you can see gently flowing red lava. The park also offers night tours to see the active lava bubbling in the dark.
- Swing on a rope into a natural spring fed pool at El Ojo de Agua on Ometepe Island. The crystal teal water is cool, but refreshing and surrounded by wildlife. To get to Ometepe Island, catch a ferry from San Jorge across Lake Nicaragua to Moyogoalpa (approximately 60 minutes). The island is formed from two volcanoes: Concepción and Maderas.
- Hike to the Cascada de San Ramon (Waterfall of San Ramon) while on Ometepe Island. Located on the southern edge of the Maderas Volcano, it’s a trek no matter where you start from and the road to the entrance is unpaved. The hike itself takes most visitors between 45 minutes to 1.5 hours and you’ll need good shoes. The falls pour into a natural swimming hole year round making the hike well worth the effort.
- Take in the breathtaking views of the Laguna de Apoyo (volcanic crater lake) and nearby Volcano Mombacho from Mirador de Caterina (Viewpoint of Caterina). Getting there you’ll pass through a small village filled with nurseries selling everything from palms and bamboo to cactus and native fruit trees.
- Wade through the winding green waterways of the Monumento Nacional Cañon de Somoto (Somoto Canyon) in the northern region of the country near the border of Honduras. The Río Coco (Coco River) is Central America’s longest river stretching all the way to the Caribbean coast. There are some sections that are only passable by swimming when the water level is high. It’s definitely worth hiring a local guide to lead you through the canyon. There are various lengths of hikes depending on how long you want go, but the full hike is 13 kilometers or estimate 6 hours of walking. The northern city of Estelí is a great starting point to access the canyon.
- Watch a baseball game in Rivas at the Yamil Rios Ugarte. The national league season starts after Easter week and ends around August. The best games are on Saturdays.
- Get pampered in Nicaragua’s finest beachfront spa at Mukul. Located on the white sandy shores of the Emerald Coast. The resort also features the country’s finest 18-hole golf course if you want to get on a green.
- Drink a cup of bean to bar coffee at Selva Negra, a historic coffee farm founded in 1891. It’s located in Matagalpa, Nicaragua’s coffee region. The temperatures drop significantly in the highlands so those coffee lovers who want to escape the will be thrilled by the change in climate.
- Snorkel or scuba dive off the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua’s Corn Islands. The crystal teal water surrounding Big Corn and Little Corn Islands is home to diverse marine life including over 40 species of coral, tropical fish and the occasional hammerhead shark. The easiest way to get to the islands is to catch a jumper flight from Managua with La Costeña Air.
- Take a wildlife safari by boat down the 119-mile Rio San Juan (San Juan River) from Lake Nicaragua to the Caribbean Sea. For centuries this ancient waterway hosted colonial battles, Spanish pirates and gold rush travelers. This is not an expedition for those in a hurry. Wi-Fi and ATM’s are rare. Boat schedules and wildlife dictate your pace. Here time slows down.
Is Nicaragua Safe?
According to Wikipedia, Nicaragua actually has the lowest violent crime rate in all Central America.
Is Nicaragua safer than Costa Rica?
According to visitors and locals, both Nicaragua and Costa Rica are quite safe destinations, especially when one uses some travel sense. The violent crime rates in both countries are less than in many North American states and cities. Crime rates are even significantly lower in Nicaragua than in Costa Rica.
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Originally from California, Brooke moved to Nicaragua in 2007. She’s the Editor of a lifestyle and travel online publication dedicated to Nicaragua (sanjuandelsur.org). She also founded a Nicaragua based non-profit organization called the Casa Llanta Fund (sanjuandelsur.org/casallantafund).