I just had my 10-year anniversary living in Nicaragua, and it's been the best 10 years of my life. Who would have thought that making a move to a brand-new country where I didn't know anyone would totally get rid of my financial challenges, add fullness to my life, and make me happier than I had ever been before?
So, when I sat down to write this article, I sighed. How can I choose just 10 things, when there are so many more things to do in Nicaragua? This country has so much to offer, so whether you’re moving to or just visiting Nicaragua, get out and experience it all.
Here are my top 10 things to do and see in Nicaragua:
10. Discover Handmade Furniture and Ceramics in the Three White Cities
Las Pueblas Blancas (the white cities) form a sort of geographic triangle—each one is about 15 minutes from the other. Not only do they have something unique in each place, but you can furnish, decorate, and landscape your home just by visiting these three small towns.
Masatepe is famous for its fine handmade furniture, the main trade of most of the families here. Just drive toward the town and you’ll see store after store of tables, chairs, sofas, end tables, wardrobes, hat racks, chests, and more. All of the furniture is built from scratch with beautiful hardwoods cedar, teak, ironwood, walnut, royal mahogany, etc. Artisans will also build your own design to specification. Or you can purchase cheaper bamboo, banana leaf, and rattan furniture, which is also beautiful. A full living room set (sofa, two large chairs, and coffee table) can set you back anywhere from $300 to $2,000 depending on the size, design, and choice of wood.
In San Juan de Oriente, ceramics are the speciality. You can watch families at their craft, spinning clay with a foot wheel while they shape a vase, a plate, or a lamp. Colorful and often intricate ceramic pieces are displayed throughout the town for prices from $5 up to $250. You can design your own lamps, umbrella vases or anything else you can think of. Where else can you get handmade ceramics exactly the color, design, and shape that you want?
Catarina, the place where everyone goes to buy plants, can complete your entire yard with fruit trees, the hundreds of colorful flowers that grow in Nicaragua, herbs and exotic water plants, orchids, etc. You can buy starter plants for just $1, large ceramic terra cotta pots for $5 and anything else you need all for your garden in this town. Make sure to go to the vista in Catarina to see the view of the beautiful Laguna de Apoyo (number 1 on this list). This may be the best view of a crater lake you’ve ever seen.Have a great adventure visiting these three towns to deck out your new home in Nicaragua.
Insider tip: Leave early in the morning if you want to visit all three places. It’s so interesting, it will take you time to see everything.
9. Relax in Nature in Matagalpa: The Pearl of the North
You owe yourself a visit to this lovely town of just over 150,000 citizens that is nestled on the side of a mountain. At an altitude of 2,300 feet, Matagalpa offers a more temperate climate than the other cities of Nicaragua and also has a year-round “green” season. If you enjoy hiking in the forest, bird-watching, following creeks and rivers, and just relaxing in nature, this might be the place for you. The agricultural center of Nicaragua, Matagalpa produces cacao and coffee for export and horse and cattle ranches dot the countryside.
Insider tip: Visit La Selva Negra Reserve and Coffee Plantation, Mirador El Calvario (which gives a view of the city below), El Castillo de Cacao (Chocolate Museum), Cerro Apante (another beautiful city viewpoint) and Cascada Santa Emilia (waterfalls).
8. Discover the Beaches of Tola: An Expat Favorite
The Emerald Coast beaches, from Gigante through Astillero, are the talk of the country right now. With a new airport situated right in the middle, and five-star resorts like Rancho Santana and Mukul in the mix, this is the new up-and-coming place for expats.
You’ll often see a group of surfing buddies renting huge mansions for a week or two, just to catch the great surf breaks that are in this area. But, don’t worry if you are not the jet-set type, these beaches are open and free to all. With a golf course in the area and several healthy eateries, you are sure to find the beach of your dreams.
Insider tip: Visit Rancho Santana for a luxurious experience, Magnific Rock for a great healthy lunch and amazing ocean view, and Iguanas Resort for golfing.
7. Take in the Architectural Beauty of the Colonial Cities of Granada and Leon
If you are an architecture buff, it’s worth your while to visit these two stunning and interesting colonial cities. If you like to see the buildings refurbished, go to Granada. If you prefer the originals, in various states of repair or disrepair, choose Leon. Granada has a definite expat feel (it’s where most of the expats live) while Leon has the excitement and political atmosphere of a Nicaraguan university town.
Leon is the larger of the two cities, with a population anywhere from 250,000, and up much higher when school is in session. Granada has just over 150,000. Both charming cities, they are a photographers dream with their different architectural styles, colors and majestic churches.
Insider tip: In Granada: Try the Mombacho Zipline attraction, a boat ride around the isletas, dinner on La Calzada street, horse-and-buggy ride through the historic district.
In Leon: Get a city view from the top of the cathedral and eat in the central park in front of the church, take a city walk and be awed by the gorgeous architecture around every corner, or go volcano surfing at Cerro Negro.
6. Hit One of the Many Stunning Virgin Beaches in San Juan Del Sur
The area around the popular beach town of San Juan del Sur has 22 beaches, over half of which are virgin. The main beach sports the name of the town—and a very interesting and funky town it is. To the north, there’s one beach after another including virgin beaches Nacascolo and El Toro and more famous beaches, Marsella, Maderas (famous surfing beach), Majagual and Playa Blanco.Each beach has its own character and beauty. To the south of San Juan del Sur lies Peñas Rotas, Remanso, Playa Hermosa (the only one that charges an entry fee), Yankee, Playa Coco, La Flor, and Ostional. The beaches not mentioned are more remote virgin beaches and it’s best to go with Nicaraguans to know where to enter.
Insider tip: There are restaurants and places to stay at Marsella, Maderas, Remanso, Playa Hermosa, and Playa Coco. The other beaches have limited or no amenities and you’ll have to speak good Spanish to find a place to stay.
5. Sink your Toes into the White-Sand Beaches of the Corn Islands and the Caribbean Coast
The Atlantic side of Nicaragua is like a whole different world—and the weather is wetter and more tropical. Nicaragua has the second largest rainforest (after the Amazon) in Latin America. Whether you take the bus from Managua to Rama and then a boat, or you fly from Managua, you will end up in Bluefields.
This rough and tumble port town is the gateway to the Corn Islands—Big Corn and Little Corn—where you’ll find the turquoise water and white-sand beaches that you see in magazines. Little Corn is the tourist island. There is no vehicle traffic and you can walk around the entire island in less than two hours. On the way, stop at one of the many restaurants, bars or hostels/hotels that dot the circular path. Big Corn is the island with crashing waves and a rugged coastline, wildly beautiful. If you have time, visit both.
Insider tip: The boat ride from Bluefields to the Corn Islands can be very intense in heavy winds. Take something soft to sit on.
4. Experience Nicaragua From the Treetops With Ziplining in Mombocho
There are several canopy tours in Nicaragua, most run about $30 per person. But my favorite, hands down, is the Mombocho Canopy tour. You can start this one in Granada, where a truck will pick you up from your hotel very early in the morning. The ride to your destination is almost as exciting…it’s a bit of a rough ride, you’ll pass through cacao groves, bamboo forests, and a coffee plantation. After you suit up in helmet and straps, the guide will show you what to do and quickly you will be flying through the treetops, over the forest, with views of Lake Colcibolca (Nicaragua). The best part however, may be at the end: you jump off a 60-foot platform high up on a huge tree onto the ground. Of course, someone is monitoring and helping you, but the “rush” you get is amazing!
Insider tip: This attraction is best for ages 10 and up and weights between 70 and 250 pounds.
3. Embrace Your Wild Side with Volcano Surfing in Cerro Negro
There are only two places to volcano surf in the world. One is Mt. Yasur in Tanna, Vanuatu in the South Pacific. And the other is Cerro Negro, volcano in Nicaragua, near the city of Leon.Not for the nervous, this is a true adventure experience right up there with sky-diving and hang-gliding. Most people tell you about going down, but very few discuss the adventure of walking up and across the active crater, with its lava-spitting fumeroles, and incredibly strong wind gusts. To me, it’s just as exciting to say that you walked through an active volcano crater (the volcano is only 160 years old) as to brag about surfing down it.
There are tour companies who will put you in protective clothing and give you different types of boards to either ride down standing up or sitting down. People can go as fast as 40 miles an hour, which is pretty fast for a human body to fly down a mountain. Or you can do what I did; I just ran down. Even that is not without its thrills, for once you start running, this 41-degree angle won’t let you stop, so you hope that you don’t trip and go tumbling down into shards of volcanic ash, which can be quite sharp.
No matter which way you go down…it’s an exciting tale to tell your friends back home.
Insider tip: Go in the morning as afternoon temperatures can become quite hot and it makes the 2,000-foot hike up the mountain more difficult.
2. Explore the Rugged Beauty of Somoto Canyon
This canyon was discovered in 2004 when a couple of Czechoslovakian friends started down the Coco River on the Caribbean side of Nicaragua with a plan of exploring it to its source. Lo and behold they arrived at a beautiful canyon, with the river running right through it. It’s located near a town called Somoto, in the west of the country.
Trained guides will take you on a tour of this natural wonder. Choose the six-hour tour to enjoy the entire canyon, the four-hour tour if you’re not up for serious hiking, but want to get the “feeling,” or the two-hour tour to take a boat ride on the river at the end of the canyon. You’ll wear a life jacket and hike over large boulders. Suddenly, when the canyon looms before you, there’s nowhere to walk, so you jump into the river and let the current take you downstream until there’s a place to hike again.
The water is an amazing clear green and the current is rapid enough (but not too much) to be fun. In the six-hour tour, you can choose to float through rapids and/or jump off a cliff into a deep-water hole. Pure, natural fun.
Insider tip: The six-hour tour is by far the best, but get a hotel in Somoto, which is near the Honduran border. You need a day to arrive, a day for the hike, and a day to get back.
1. Discover Mother Nature at Her Best at Laguna De Apoya
This volcanic crater lake is one of my favorite places of all time. The large warm, clear water lake supposedly has medicinal properties and a comfortable temperature all year round. Surrounded by thick forest, this tranquil spot on earth offers nature lovers a beautiful place to relax and reflect.
Bird watchers, kayakers, wind surfers (during windy season), swimmers, and people who just love places like this, will all appreciate Laguna de Apoyo. Some expat-style restaurants, hostels and spas flank the lake, but there are very few residences here yet. It is still very much mother nature’s child.
My favorite place is the public beach, Narome, where I always order the best fish (guapote, indigenous to the lake) that I’ve ever had…served up on a personal grill. Every time I visit this stunning body of water, I thank my lucky stars that 10 years ago I chose to live in this exotic and interesting country.
Bonus: Experience the Mystical Beauty of Ometepe Island
I told you it was difficult to choose just 10 things.
People tell me, that they come back from Ometepe Island changed. I know when I go there that I feel like I’m in another world; a world that is peaceful and happy. If you visit Nicaragua or you live here, make sure that you visit this unworldly place.
You can take the 75-minute ferry from San Jorge (about 30 minutes from San Juan del Sur) to the city of Moyagalpa on the island. But don’t stay in Moyagalpa. Go inland. The island is huge and you can take a bus around its perimeter and get off where you want to. You can contract with a taxi driver, but know that the prices are steep. Depending where you go, taxis start at about $30. Or, when you are on the ferry, find other expats who need to get around the island and share a taxi with them.
Once there…enjoy the different world you are in. Peaceful, natural, and pure. Ometepe embraces nature and shows you the best of it. Two volcanos watch over the island, the larger and active Concepcion, and the smaller, but sleeping, Maderas. You can climb either one and get a great view of the island.
Visit Ojo de Agua, a clear turquoise lagoon in the middle of a dense forest. Or hike to the waterfalls at San Ramon. There are horseback riding trips to waterfalls or to see ancient petroglyphs. Kayak to monkey island, or just relax at your hotel and look at all the stunning flowers.