Americans have long associated Nicaragua with the Cold-War era Iran-Contra scandal but more and more savvy travelers are discovering that Nicaragua is a safe, cheap and interesting place with great beaches, reliably warm weather and a vibrant cultural scene.
Travel writers have been hyping Nicaragua for years. In 2005, Frommer’s called it “the next big thing” and glossy magazines like Travel & Leisure and Condé Nast promoted the country as a budget friendly alternative to Costa Rica. Until recently though, Nicaragua was still considered more of an off-the-beaten track backpacker destination than a place for American families to vacation. The New York Times nam Nicaragua one of its places to visit in 2013n April 1, the country’s first super luxury resort, Mukul, . If it succeeds, others will surely follow.
For the moment, Nicaragua is still a delightfully budget friendly holiday destination. According to the Wall Street Journal, foreign visitors spent an average of just $43 per day in Nicaragua in 2011. Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, next to Haiti, so travelers should be prepared to experience heartbreaking poverty. Many who come for a vacation in Nicaragua end up staying to volunteer and even those who don’t are often changed by their eye-opening experience in the country.
In checking out our recommendations below, please note that save Mukul and a few other ritzy places, nearly every hotel, restaurant and attraction in this country could qualify as “budget” or “value” by American standards. Our recent scouting trip didn’t operate on a strict backpacker’s budget, but according to Tim Leffel, author of “The World’s Cheapest Destinations,” savvy backpackers can by on as little as $15 per day in Nicaragua.
Surf the Pacific: The Pacific Coast is a haven for surfers. San Juan del Sur is about a two-hour drive from the Managua airport and is a great base for surfers. Playa Hermosa, near San Juan del Sur, is a particularly good surf spot but there are dozens of other viable alternatives. There are several shops that rent boards and offer surf lessons, including Arena Caliente, Good Times Surf Shop and Baloy’s Surf Shop. Arena Caliente also has a surf camp as does the all-girl surf camp Chicabrava.
Volcano Hikes/Boarding: There are several volcanoes that make for good day trips from San Juan del Sur or Granada. You can hike or drive up to the crater of Masaya Volcano ($5 entrance fee), which is just outside Granada, but if you stick around too long, you might get a bit light headed, as this is an active volcano. Isla de Ometepe has two more active volcanoes and is a great day trip from San Juan del Sur. There are places to hike and zip line all over the country and you can on the Cerro Negro Volcano near Leon.
Study Spanish or Volunteer: Nicaragua is also a great place to learn Spanish or volunteer. In San Juan del Sur, La Escuela Rosa Silva’s Spanish School (50 meters west of the market) offers four hours of daily instruction for just $100 per week. Roger Ramirez’s One-on-One Spanish Tutoring Academy (Calle Calzada) offers private lessons in Granada starting at just $6 per hour. The Moon Guide to Nicaragua has an extensive list of volunteer opportunities with organizations in Granada like Building New Hope, Empowerment International, and La Esperanza Granada.
Granada– Hotel Plaza Colon– Travelers can find perfectly acceptable hotels in Granada for as little as $25 per night, but for a little bit more, you can stay at this historic old beauty of a hotel, located right on the city’s principal square. The rooms are spacious and tastefully decorated, the staff is helpful to a fault and there’s a great little pool in the hotel courtyard. From $99. Parque Central.
San Juan del Sur- Villas de Palermo– By Nicaraguan standards, this condo complex is a bit of a splurge, but it’s a great value for families who want a full apartment, complete with a big, modern kitchen, rather than a hotel room. Many of the apartments have an ocean view and there’s a glorious pool and a free shuttle that makes the 1-mile trip into town on the hour during daylight hours. From $159.
Isla de Ometepe- The Corner House B & B– Rooms at Ometepe are stylish but simple and are a bargain for what you pay. The Canadian woman and British man that run the place are extraordinarily friendly and will help you plan adventures around the island. Try the excellent breakfast. From $25. Moyogalpa.
Granada– Restaurante El Garaje– This intimate, little place doesn’t seem appealing from the street – they keep the gate locked, you have to ring the doorbell to enter and the place is very dark – but the food is excellent and dirt cheap, with full meals for $4-7. A Canadian couple from Vancouver who came to Granada on a vacation and decided to stay run the place out of a front room in their home, and you can watch them prepare the eclectic menu, which changes every night and can include anything from fresh fish to quesadillas to Thai. 512 Calle Corral.
San Juan del Sur– Asados Juanita– Juanita is very easy to find. Just look for the crowds and you’ll see her grilling up meats on the street. For $4, you get a choice of freshly grilled meats, a small salad, plantains, rice, beans and guacamole. Near Casa Oro Hostel and the Central Market.
Laguna de Apoyo– Abuelas– The Laguna de Apoyo is a great place for a swim and the setting for this restaurant couldn’t be lovelier. It features very tasty grilled meats and seafood, with most entrees in the $8-12 range. Best of all, you can go for a swim and lounge on one of their lagoon-side deckchairs after your feast.
Car rental isn’t particularly cheap in Nicaragua but it’s easy to get around without a car. The Nicaraguan government has invested heavily in building and repairing roads in recent years in a bid to boost tourism. In San Juan del Sur, you can hire a driver for around $50-$60 a day. Just talk to any of the cab drivers you see parked in the town or ask your hotel for help.
A ride on a local chicken bus will cost about 60-80 cents an hour and more comfortable minibuses aren’t much more. A short ride in a taxi in Granada can cost as little as 50 cents each because the drivers stop to pick up other passengers. The one hour, twenty minute ferry ride to Isla de Ometepe costs less than $2.
We used Camilo Rivera, a taxi driver based in San Juan del Sur, (505) 886-72336 – and can highly recommend him – for $50-60 per day depending on where you want to go.
Weather in Nicaragua is almost always hot, sunny and dry in the high season, which runs from December through February, plus Easter. March-May can be uncomfortably hot. June-August is a bit cooler and generally dry, while September-November is the rainy season.
Nicaraguans boast that their country is the safest in Central America. There is no reliable way to test that claim but in our scouting trip we felt safe in San Juan del Sur, Ometepe and Granada. As in any developing country, tourists sometimes get robbed, but in most cases, they are crimes of opportunity and the victims aren’t harmed. Use the same precautions here that you would in any large city. Americans should also be extra careful not to run afoul of Nicaragua’s laws, especially the drug laws, as the justice system is deeply flawed and a number of foreigners have been imprisoned on dubious charges.
Note: San Juan del Sur and other towns in Nicaragua don’t use traditional street names and addresses. On our scouting trip this didn’t prove to be a problem as cab drivers in Granada and San Juan del Sur know how to find just about any beach, hotel, restaurant, store or attraction you might want to visit.
[Photo credits: Dave Seminara]