Nicaragua was the first country where I really lived abroad, and it holds a special place in my heart. I gush about it to anyone who will listen, even today, years later. As I write this post, I continually turn my laptop around to show my roommate various photos of my adventures. Photos are always followed by a crazy story. Like the time I fell out the emergency exit of a moving chicken bus. Or the time I was almost arrested for impersonating a pregnant woman. Or the time I invented real-life Fruit Ninja game with a machete and some bananas. I could go on. There’s a chance that I start a few too many stories with “When I lived in Nicaragua…”
When I plan a new trip, my thought-process starts with “Well, I could go back to Nicaragua…” This process leads me on a wandering trip down memory lane, through my photos and the Facebook profiles of traveling companions. The hammocks, the beaches, the fresh fruit, the people — there’s something about Nicaragua that has it securely at the top of my travel list. Here are a few of the reasons why you should consider Nicaragua for your next trip!
Not much beats seeing the red, bubbling lava inside the expansive Telica crater lighting up the night sky, while you inch closer to the precipitous edge in the dark. The experience easily makes the early wake-up and the day-long trek well worth it. Volcanoes fill Nicaragua, and most of them are climbable with the help of local guides.
The most popular volcano is also one of the smallest and most active: Cerro Negro. Cerro Negro translates to “black hill” in Spanish, which is exactly what you see as you drive through the tree canopy and into a clearing with a large, black hill right in the middle. Black cinders and ash from earlier eruptions cover Cerro Negro’s slopes. This ash gives the volcano its distinct look, and lends itself to a new, growing adventure sport: Volcano Boarding. Hikers sit on plywood-type toboggans and ride down the black-sand sides of Cerro Negro — you can also stand snowboard-style if you prefer.
Fun Fact: Check out this record-breaking trip by Eric Barone down the slopes of Cerro Negro on his bike. And then check out a video of his first attempt to see why you should stick to Volcano Boarding and not Volcano Biking!
Many tour companies go to Cerro Negro, Telica, and a number of other volcanoes. My personal favorite is Quetzaltrekkers. I spent a lot of my time in Nicaragua working with them and their partners, so I may be a little biased. Quetzaltrekkers is an awesome, volunteer-run nonprofit trekking company. They offer a great place to volunteer and also a great trekking agency. All profits go toward locally run children’s projects in and around Leon. They are an excellent example of voluntourism done right. If you’re in the area, look them up!
Best Kept Secret
Nicaragua is up-and-coming on the tourist circuit, but it hasn’t quite arrived yet. It’s been a staple on the backpacker circuit for years, but it recently is gaining recognition from other types of travelers as well. The vibe is quite similar to Costa Rica, but without the English-speaking, luxury resorts, and high prices. Nicaragua is a little more low-key. Prices are modest and hotels generally have about 15-20 rooms max, making it more of an intimate stay.
Nicaragua is also home to Flor de Cana, a top-shelf rum that pairs great with Coke (which is colloquially referred to as a Nica Libre). It’s cheaper to buy a bottle of rum and ship it to Europe than it is to buy the same bottle at a liquor store in France. Nicaragua also boasts cigars that are second only to Cuba. I don’t smoke, but I’m told they’re pretty good. My U.S. friends love when I return to Nicaragua. They all quickly put in their requests for rum, cigars, and hammocks for me to carry home.
Bang for Your Buck
Nicaragua has something for everyone. You can lie in a hammock all day, or you can climb a volcano. Like the beach? Spend time snorkeling in the picturesque Corn Islands, or go surfing in the Pacific Ocean. Esteli has cool weather, rain forests, coffee plantations, and home stays. Rio San Juan is chock full of history, including disputed territories and cool forts. Relax on Ometepe, or jump from the edge of a canyon in Somoto into the crystal clear water below. Granada is filled with colorful, colonial buildings and horse-drawn carriages, while Leon has museums, universities, and a vibrant nightlife.
Nicaragua is full of beaches. And each has its own characteristics and quirks. The country’s East Coast borders the Caribbean and it is widely undeveloped, but just off the coast lies a little piece of paradise known as Corn Islands. Give in to the relaxing lifestyle and enjoy being surrounded by blue water, white sand, and coconut-filled seafood dishes. Most hotels are made up of small cottages along the shoreline, and the islands have a completely different vibe than the rest of the country. About five years ago, the Corn Islands boasted having the cheapest dive certification worldwide. That may not longer be the case, but either way, it’s incredibly cheap to dive there. This is one of the cases where you get more than what you’ve paid for — diving in the Corn Islands is top-notch.
The West Coast borders the Pacific Ocean, which has stronger currents ideal for surfing and darker, volcanic sand. San Juan del Sur in the southern corner of the country is a backpacker haven where the parties never end. Further north, smaller beaches are scattered along the coast, like Popoyo, Jiquilillo and Las Penitas. Each of these beaches have small fishing villages attached, a laid-back lifestyle, and varying types of accommodation. The ocean temperature here feels like bath water, but the waves are quite strong along the shore. Once you make it out past the breaking point, float in bliss to the rise and fall of the swells.
Stay For a While
Nicaragua is an easy place to volunteer, work, travel responsibly, and to just live for an extended period. It is currently (and has been for a while) referred to as the safest country in Central America. Cities are filled with volunteering opportunities from teaching in schools to guiding volcano treks. Learning Spanish is also quite easy; one-hour lessons generally cost around $3-$5 USD. Citizens of most countries can get a 3-month visa upon arrival, but you can extend your visas indefinitely by taking a bus to the Costa Rican border, walking across, and walking back five minutes later.
The cost of living in Nicaragua is also quite cheap. In a big city like Leon or Granada, it’s easy to find an apartment for $100/month (and cheaper in other areas). A bottle of local beer costs about $1.50 USD, and a meal from a street vendor is between $1 – $2 USD.
The country has a vibrant culture and has a lot of opportunities for getting involved in the local communities through either volunteering or by supporting social enterprises. As tourism grows and more people discover the beauty of Nicaragua, vacant beaches will give way to large resorts and colonial cities will become Westernized. Currently, China is attempting to build a canal across the country, a very controversial plan. Chances are it will die before it even begins, like the last time, but who knows. I’d definitely recommend making it your next destination.
Are you planning a trip to Nicaragua or have you already traveled there? What are some things you enjoyed?
Cindy is a traveler with an insatiable urge to immerse herself in other cultures. She is currently working on a project providing solar lights (among other things) to urban slums in Bangalore, India. Follow her adventures at Casilocal. She is also a GV Ambassador helping map the world of social enterprises and sustainable volunteer opportunities.