Backpacking in Nicaragua: Costs, Tips and Places to See
Why should you go backpacking in Nicaragua…? Well, this diverse Central American country is full of beautiful nature, great beaches and picturesque towns — and it also gets far fewer tourists than neighbouring Costa Rica. I spent just over a month backpacking in Nicaragua, from north to south and from the Caribbean coast to the Pacific. Here’s a quick look at where I went and also some tips and a rundown on how much it costs.
Granada is the quintessential Spanish colonial city — it has grand churches, colourful old houses, a massive central plaza and horse drawn carriages shuttling tourists and locals alike around the historic streets. It’s worth spending at least a few days exploring Granada, and more than a few if you want to see what the surrounding area has to offer.
Further reading: Granada, Nicaragua: Where History and Nature Collide
There are a few worthwhile day trips and tours available from Granada. Laguna de Apoyo is a cool little lake surrounded by restaurants and guesthouses and is worth at least a full day trip. It was cloudy when we were there (for most of our time in Nicaragua actually) which robbed it of some of its beauty — if the sun had have been shining we would have spent at least one night there. It’s also worth doing a boat trip to Las Isletas, a group of tiny, rocky islands which formed as the result of a massive volcanic eruption (the monkey photo at the top of this post was taken during the Las Isletas tour).
This small island in Lake Nicaragua is dominated by two massive volcanoes. You can explore black sand beaches, swimming holes and monkey-filled forests, or opt for a more gruelling volcano climb. If you’re planning on backpacking in Nicaragua you don’t want to miss this place.
Further reading: Ometepe: A Magical Volcanic Island in Lake Nicaragua
A world away from the dramatic (and popular with tourists) Ometepe are the Solentiname Islands, a small archipelago at the southern end of Lake Nicaragua. Not many people make it to these laid-back islands — we only saw 1 other foreigner in 3 days! The locals are really friendly and all seem to have pet parrots. Many of them are also artists, creating beautiful paintings and sculptures inspired by the pristine nature that surrounds them.
Further reading: Solentiname Islands, Nicaragua: The Art of Nature
El Castillo was the scene of a fierce battle between the Spanish and British / Miskito forces — eventually won by the Spanish thanks to a teenage girl. Today the town draws tourists in because of the massive fortress above town and also the wild jungle found downriver. The raging rapids, which have caused people plenty of trouble over the last few centuries, provide a nice view from the many small hotels and restaurants lining the river. To get to El Castillo you’ll need to pass through San Carlos, which is also the gateway to the Solentiname Islands and a not so popular (but very scenic and easy to navigate) border with Costa Rica.
We travelled overland from El Salvador, via Honduras, to Nicaragua, ending our long journey in Leon. We were exhausted and didn’t really give the city much of a chance. The downtown area is nice and features some impressive colonial architecture and it’s a lot less touristy than picture-perfect Granada. We had planned to do some volcano boarding outside of Leon but it was shut down due to seismic activity.
The Corn Islands
The Corn Islands are Nicaragua’s version of Caribbean paradise — the 2 small islands are home to Creole people who have little in common with Spanish speaking Nicaraguans. The beaches are nice but we visited in rainy season and didn’t really see these islands at their best. It’s a bit of a mission to get to the Corn Islands (unless you fly) but it’s worth it, especially if you have a good stretch of time in Nicaragua.
Further reading: The Corn Islands, Nicaragua: The Caribbean on a Budget
San Juan del Sur
The Pacific coast of Nicaragua is a surfing hotspot attracting plenty of tourists looking for some sun and sand. The beaches around San Juan del Sur are excellent and it’s quite a good alternative to similar (but more expensive) beach towns in Costa Rica.
Further reading: Exploring the Northern Beaches in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua
We wanted to get into the Nicaraguan highlands and chose Matagalpa as I’d heard good things about it. The town is definitely nothing special but we did go for a nice hike into a cloud forest / coffee plantation just outside of town. We saw lots of colourful birds and it was a nice walk — I’m not sure it was worth such a big detour though (we went to Matagalpa from Leon), especially if you’ve been to / planning to go to cloud forests in Costa Rica or Colombia.
Bluefields / El Rama
The rough Caribbean coast of Nicaragua isn’t a place people tend to linger on the way to or from the Corn Islands. We only briefly passed through El Rama but we did spend a few days in Bluefields, mainly because of the Palo de Mayo festival. It was pretty good (I’m guessing it’s like a way smaller version of the Rio Carnival) and Bluefields is a decent enough town, but unless you’re there during the festival there probably isn’t much point in sticking around.
Backpacking in Nicaragua FAQs
- How much does it cost to go backpacking in Nicaragua? It’s actually not as cheap as I thought it’d be. We generally spent the equivalent of $15-$25 for decent double rooms and $5-$10 for meals (for 2 people). Little Corn Island was the most expensive place and Bluefields / El Rama were probably the cheapest. Buses in Nicaragua are really cheap, especially if you travel on chicken buses, which are old American school buses. You won’t pay more than a couple of dollars for a ride on one of them but you might need to change buses a couple of times to get to where you want to go.
- Is Nicaragua safe? This is always a tough question to answer. Everywhere is safe and nowhere is safe — just because we didn’t encounter any trouble while backpacking in Nicaragua doesn’t mean you won’t. We felt safe most places but we didn’t do too much wandering around at night. We found Nicaraguan people to be generally friendly and helpful — one woman even stopped us going to a hotel because the guy was “no bueno” (no good).
Would you like to go backpacking in Nicaragua? Have you been to any countries in Central America? Let me know in the comments below!