Nicaragua is not all swaying palm trees and beautiful beaches, although these are definitely worth exploring (check out my posts on Little Corn and Big Corn for more on beach life). There is so much history, culture and nature to discover in this beautiful country.
Managua is the capital city and where most visitors make their entry point to Nicaragua. Unfortunately this city has a reputation for high crime and lack of attractions. At approximately 2 million people, this is Nicaragua’s most densely populated area, with numerous urban poor likely uncounted. While we only got a taste of Managua, we certainly didn’t feel unsafe though we didn’t see any other tourists around either.
The central area of Managua includes the Cultural Institute, a lovely parkette with monuments to key leaders, and the cathedral nearly destroyed by the 1972 earthquake, which is condemned but still beautifully lit up at night. The area is protected by tourist security, as are many commonly visited places in Nicaragua, though we felt even more comfortable with a local guide. For our tour, we went with Mana-Ahuac Hoy, a small family owned business that specializes in Managua and local festivals. They offer a really laid back customized experience (no tour bus here, just Casey or Marcella driving you around to the best spots in their car!).
Managua offers a range of accommodations, from reasonably priced hostels to high end hotels like the Hilton and Crowne. If you are looking for a budget option near the airport, I highly recommend Hostal Monte Cristi which is located in a pretty gated community a stone’s throw from the airport. At $35 USD per night ($5 extra for A/C), you can get a double room with private bathroom, tv, free transfer to and from airport, and bottled water. This feels like an AirBnB experience where you are renting in someone’s home and while you should not expect luxury, the customer service can’t be beat. A few great local eats can be found right next door including a stand with handmade tortillas.
About 30 minutes from Managua, you will find the town of Masaya with it’s famous market and infamous volcano. As others have said, you could skip the market, which is filled with stall after stall of similar handicrafts, hammocks, leather goods and fake Cuban cigars. However, the town itself has a great local vibe which is ripe for exploring. You can find lots of horses at work pulling carts, the freshest plantain chips sold on the side of the road, and festivals galore. Keep an eye out for the old school buses, repainted and converted into public buses!
A visit to the active Masaya volcano is an absolute must, but be warned some tours can be disappointing. Private tours are much better because you set your own pace. We did this as part of our tour with Mana-Ahuac and weren’t disappointed. The volcano itself is magnificent and I can’t believe how close you can get to it! Referred to as the Mouth of Hell and feared by many throughout history, you can see the billowing smoke for miles and the smell of sulphur can be overpowering when you get close. At night, if you’re lucky you can see the lava bubbling inside.
Our last stop was the lovely town of Granada, located on the edge of the clean and shallow Lake Nicaragua which contains 365 small islands (some for sale if you are on the market!) and plenty of bull sharks. You can hire a boat from as low as $15 to tour the islands or you can just relax by the lake with the locals. The picturesque town centre includes several cathedrals, museums such as the converted San Francisco convent, and the pedestrian only area of La Calzada with lots of restaurants and shops. Parque Central is a popular local meeting place with various stalls selling food and souvenirs, as well as the hub for picking up a tour in a horse drawn carriage.
There is so much more of Nicaragua to see – the historic town of Leon, the double volcano on Ometepe, and the surf town of San Juan del Sur just to name a few. Check out Rough Guides for some really stunning pics of the sites I didn’t get to visit this time. I’ll be back Nicaragua!