Traveling Nicaragua for a girls trip was the best idea we’ve ever had. Skip the over-done Mexican beaches for something a bit more rustic, authentic, affordable and way more memorable. The world hasn’t really caught on to the fact that Nicaragua is a little gem (it’s Southern neighbor, Costa Rica, keeps stealing all the spotlight!), but it’s a Central American country worth spending time in. We did a week in it. Read on for my full Nicaragua travel guide!
About us: Me (read more here!) and my friend, Mel, were college roommates. We now live on opposite sides of the country and this trip marked our first girls trip. We’re both people who opt for adventure and authenticity when traveling, so Nicaragua spoke to us. Plus, the beaches. Nicaragua is pretty cheap, which was great because we both had small budgets, being young 20-somethings in expensive cities. My plan tickets there cost about $500, we spent about $300 each on hotels for the whole week and probably about $300 on food, adventures and shopping. We felt like we truly got to know the country without breaking the bank!
SAN JUAN DEL SUR: 3-5 Days
San Juan Del Sur was our favorite town. I’ll be honest, it’s hard to get a feel for this place until you visit it first hand. Some forums say it’s dangerous, some say it’s just fun for surfers. Wrong! I’m sure the town gets more unsafe at night (like most cities), but I never felt threatened. And as for the surfing thing, we didn’t surf once and it was still our favorite place. We only stayed 3 days and wish we stayed more!
W booked a room at El Jardin, a beautiful hotel in the hills of San Juan Del Sur. It has a sweeping view of the ocean, is far from noise of other people, a pool and a great breakfast. Plus, it’s only $65 a night, which is amazing considering a hotel like this in the USA would easily come in at $300. I’d recommend staying at El Jardin or a hotel like it. Make it your home base/oasis, a peaceful place to stay while exploring all San Juan has to offer. Read more here.
PACK THIS FOR NICARAGUA
Spend a whole day (or two!) at Playa Hermosa. It’s a stunning beach with a full bar and restaurant filled with cabanas, hammocks, and chairs to lounge on. The best part? It’s not packed. There were maybe 50 other people there with us the whole day, and half were in the water surfing. I was worried I would be bored in San Juan because I don’t surf, but this beach was all I needed. And there are about 3 others just as great if you need a change of scenery. You can take a shuttle from Casa el Oro in town to the beach ($10).
Set aside a morning to climb up to the Jesus statue for sweeping views of the city. After, walk down to town (about 20 minutes) and grab lunch at one of beachside restaurants. Get ready for some killer burritos for a very cheap price. I’d spend the rest of the day exploring the town and/or grabbing beers and sitting on the beach. An important thing to note: the sun sets around 6pm year-round here, so make sure to plan day time activities accordingly.
My favorite part was our day on a yacht, sailing to a private beach with all you can eat and drink onboard. For just $75, Nica Sail and Surf will sail you, your friends, and probably new friends to Playa Blanca,a remote beach about an hour north of San Juan. You’ll have a drink in your hand the second you step on board and they go at a relaxing pace, perfect for soaking up the sun. Once you reach Playa Blanca, you’ll swim out, play in the waves and grab snacks on the boat before heading back to town at sunset. Mel and I both felt so free and happy — it was something that I will remember for a lifetime. Read more HERE (lots of photos!)
GRANADA – 2 Days
Granada was a town I was really looking forward to visiting. It’s the first inland Spanish colonial town built in Central America, so it’s home to the most colorful buildings and quaint streets. We loved Granada, but you don’t need more than two days there. It’s small and sleepy – you’ll be able to see everything easily in that amount of time. Read even more about Granada here.
We stayed at Patio Del Malinche a few blocks off of the main square. It was the most beautiful courtyard filled with gardens, palm trees, hammocks and a cute pool. I wasn’t the biggest fan of their (free) breakfast, but the hotel’s kind staff and aesthetic made up for it. Plus, it has A/C!
Spend a day just wandering the streets of Granada. Visit the famous yellow Cathedral on the main square, or one of the other 6 cathedrals in town. I’m sure the church/person ratio is really small! Grab a papaya ice cream and find your favorite, colorful door. Have dinner out on Calle de Calzada, a street just for restaurants. People watch while cooling off in the nighttime air. Or head a few blocks off the main street to La Hacienda for a more peaceful patio and amazing, authentic food.
Make sure to visit the Mombacho cigar factory! Tours are only $4 and we went in the morning, so we got a private tour from the cutest local guide. They’ll walk you around each floor of the mansion turned cigar factory and let you touch leaves and play with some of the tools used to make cigars. We don’t smoke, but it was so fun learning about the cigar making process and seeing it first hand. We each bought a small case of cigars, just because you couldn’t walk out without one. The most photo worthy part was their rooftop! It was 360-degree views of Granada and they’re currently working on turning it into a cigar lounge/bar. I’m sure by the end of 2016 it’ll be ready and it’ll be a game changer in the nightlife of Granada.
My favorite activity was kayaking the Islas of Granada. We heard about Valdmir, a local who does private kayak tours for $25 a person and we just had to do it. Mel and I both love kayaking. We met him at 3pm, hopped into a single kayak and we were off on a beautiful 3-hour kayak tour! He takes it easy, so your arms don’t get too tired. He also knows everyone the islands and halfway through the tour we stopped at a family’s home. They tossed us coconuts and we drank fresh coconut water, right there in our kayaks. Then, we paddled to Monkey Island, a small island home to 4 rescue monkeys. He knew all their names and helped us feed them. My favorite was the fat one who looked like it was Christmas morning when we were feeding him. Then, to really top the trip off, we swam at a private island for a bit before paddling back just in time to watch the sunset over Lake Nicaragua. In Granada? Call Valdimir for an adventure.
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LEON – 1 DAY
Our last stop was in Leon for a night. We went there just to go volcano boarding on Cerro Negro and since the tours are in the morning, we stayed a night. And that is all I recommend staying for. Leon is small and there isn’t much to do or see other than the beautiful, white cathedral in the center of town. For just a few dollars, you can walk on the roof of the building. Painted all white with Middle Eastern looking designs/domes, the cathedral steals the show. But that only takes about an hour, and then you’re kind of done with Leon. We didn’t want to go back to our hostel that soon, so we had a very slow dinner on the square and people watched.
Bigfoot, the company that does volcano boarding is also a hostel, so we opted to stay there the night before the tour to make things easy. Beds are only $12, but unless you’re under the age of 22, you probably should find a hotel. I really wanted to still be able to “do” hostels, but this is a 100% party hostel. It wasn’t the loud music and kids drunk at 6pm that bothered me. It wasn’t being woken up by a group of drunk Brits at 2am that bothered me. It wasn’t listening to a couple in our room argue for 30 minutes at 3am that bothered me (though I was ready to punch someone). What broke me was waking up at 4am to bare ass 5 feet away from me and a guy peeing all over the floor of the room (he was blackout drunk). I rolled over and Snapchatted Melanie in the bunk above: I think I’m too old for hostels. So, unless you’re still young, in the mood to party, sleep little and/or hook up with some international babe, Bigfoot Hostel isn’t the place for you. But I love volcano boarding. It was a thrilling adventure that you can’t do anywhere else. Read all about it here.
We spent out last night in Managua because we had an early flight out, but from what I could tell, it isn’t the best city in the world. Industrial, sprawling, a little unsafe. If I were you, I’d skip it and spend more time in San Juan del Sur, or go venture out to Isla de Ompete, a spot we didn’t have time to visit, but a place I wish we did.
Quick facts about Nicaragua
- They use both Cordobas and US dollars. It’s weird and confusing, but make sure to have both on hand.
- The sun rises around 5am and sets around 6pm, pretty much year-round. Also weird, so don’t plan on long nights on a patio while watching the sunset.
- A lot of people speak English, but a lot don’t. Knowing some handy Spanish phrases will get you far.
- We made our way around Nicaragua via taxis and private shuttles from Bigfoot hostel (ranging from $15-40 each depending on the distance). Take the public buses if you speak Spanish well and aren’t on a tight schedule.
- The national beer in Victoria and Tona. Tona is better. Drink the Tona.
- Make sure to bring bug spray! Zika is a problem in this country, so better be safe than sorry.
- Use sunscreen every day! Take care of your skin while on vacation.
- Water bottles can be purchased pretty much anywhere for just a couple of dollars. Most hotels will have drinkable water in the kitchen. Just ask them to fill your bottle up for you (don’t drink the tap water).
- It’s freaking hot in Nicaragua. It got over 100 degrees when we were there. Bring clothes that cater to that climate. Read more packing tips here.
I hope you have a great time in Nicaragua. If you have any questions! Please leave a comment below!