18/07/2024

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Backpacking Nicaragua Travel Guide: Hostels, Routes & Tips

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Backpacking Nicaragua Travel Guide: Hostels, Routes & Tips

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Easy-to-travel and budget-friendly Nicaragua may not be the most famous destination in Central America, but it might just be where you can have the most fun!

It’s strangely overlooked and kind of low-key amazing, especially if you’re a backpacker looking for somewhere relatively unspoiled.

Sure, if you want to witness lots of wildlife like sloths or toucans it’s better in neighboring Costa Rica, which is famed for its highly developed ecotourism. But… be prepared for travel costs at least 3X what you’d spend in Nicaragua. Budget travel is a lot easier here.

The travel distances are also very manageable, so you can go surfing, volcano boarding, jungle hiking, or stroll through colonial towns all within hours’ distance of each other.

Backpacking Nicaragua Travel Guide: Hostels, Routes & Tips

I loved my time in Nicaragua while backpacking the Latin American Gringo Trail. It’s possibly the cheapest country in all of Central America, which made it a perfect place to stay longer, learn some Spanish, take surfing lessons, and do lots of fun tours and activities at affordable prices. I honestly got stuck in Nicaragua far longer than I had planned!

Nicaragua is getting steadily (re-)discovered by intrepid backpackers, drawn by its friendly prices, local vibe, and nascent ecotourism. Here’s what you need to know before you go.

Why visit Nicaragua

Not sure yet if Nicaragua is your vibe? Then first consider these top reasons for visiting Nicaragua.

A haven for thrillseekers

Whether it’s surfing in San Juan, kayaking or mountain biking around lake island Ometepe, or boarding down the slopes of an active volcano (!), active travelers will find tons of things to do in Nicaragua.

A place to slow down and relax

It’s equally easy to embrace your inner sloth. Ometepe Island, which is in the middle of lake Nicaragua, is a particularly relaxed place with little traffic and plenty of hammocks. Look for surfer hangouts on the Pacific coast where you can cheaply rent a place right on the beach.

Relatively low crime levels

While you shouldn’t take this to mean that it’s 100% safe everywhere (the capital Managua does have a bit of a bad rep), Nicaragua has fortunately mostly escaped the gang violence that has afflicted other nearby countries.

Now, that doesn’t mean you’re in Japan here — this is still Central America! Be sure to take proper safety precautions and read some official safety tips before you go. But in general the security situation is much better than in, say, neighboring Honduras or parts of South America (like Ecuador right now).

Extremely affordable

There are good dorm beds to be found for just $7 a night or so. or budget private or semi-private rooms for as little as $11. A typical meat-with-rice-and-beans set meal will set you back just $2.50.

Undertouristed

Following unrest in 2018 (which has long since passed!) not to mention the pandemic, there was a period during which tourism in Nicaragua slowed to a trickle. Now the country is back in the game, but still without the crowds you may see in other destinations.

Tourism isn’t nearly as developed in Nicaragua as in, say, Costa Rica or Mexico, and it’s mostly the domain of backpackers and independent travellers. However, if you are a bit of a ‘flashpacker’ or like more boutique-style accommodations, you can also find it.

Hostel tips

Enjoying your trip is as much about where you’re staying as where you’re going. Fortunately, there is some amazing accommodation in Nicaragua offering exceptional value for money.

Here are a few suggestions:

Hostel Hola Ola

Pool, BBQs, movie nights — but not so over the top as San Juan’s party hostels.

Selina Granada

Another Selina location with amazing facilities and right on the main square

Oh, and let me share a little secret with you. For an unbelievable experience, you have to spend at least a few nights at The Treehouse.

It’s near Granada in a truly magical location with the most stunning sunsets over the forests. The feeling of living among the trees here may remind you of some of the famous hostels in Minca, Colombia, if you’ve been there.

A little sidebar: I stayed in this hostel a bunch of years ago when it had a different name. The owner at the time was, I kid you not, stuck in jail — so he had left the hostel entirely to the volunteers to run. As you can imagine, this quickly created a mini-society with its own rules and a hint of Lord of the Flies… the hostel maintenance was absolutely in the trash but the parties were a ton of fun.

I’m happy to report that under the new owner this place has blossomed and been living up to its full potential, with currently a 9.6 (!) score on Hostelworld. This place really is a unique experience — I’ll never forget sitting in the observation treehut surrounded by howler monkeys!

Travel route for Nicaragua

While Nicaragua is the largest country in Central America, most of its key sights and cities are clustered in the southwest.

See those two lakes near the Pacific coast? That’s where most things are, and that’s where you can focus your trip research.

Although Nicaragua is large in terms of land area, when travelling around it actually feels very compact. The distances between Leon, Granada, Ometepe, and San Juan Del Sur are never more than a couple of hours or so.

A typical route: focus on the colonial cities of Leon and Granada, using these as a base for excursions such as volcano hikes. Relax on the volcanic island of Ometepe. Party or chill in San Juan Del Sur by the coast, or choose from some of the quieter beach towns further north. All this can easily fill up 10+ days. Don’t bother with the capital Managua, which is very modern and not so appealing.

Less-visited areas: want to go beyond the beaten path a bit? Consider the mountainous regions north-east of Managua and Leon. The Caribbean side of Nicaragua consists mostly of remote and dense jungles with apparently some of the worst roads in Central America. Not many travelers go this way with one exception: Corn Island is a popular destination in the east, which is best reached by plane from Managua. (Note: as it is remote, the Corn Islands are somewhat more expensive than the rest of Nicaragua.)

Places to visit in Nicaragua

Explore the old cities of Grenada and Léon

While the capital of Managua was mostly flattened in an earthquake years ago (and is now an unappealing sprawl), the cities of Granada and León are very well preserved and full of Spanish colonial architecture.

Granada is arguably the most pleasant of the two. Its main cobblestone walking street is lined with nicely renovated houses with a variety of restaurants with outdoor seating. There have clearly been some attempts to make Granada nice and tourist-friendly, though it’s still a very low-key kind of place.

León is the grungier and somewhat more chaotic city. It may lack the fresh paint you find on the walls in Granada, but it has a sort of rough beauty that I found very interesting and appealing, so it was actually my favorite of the two. This blog has a nice comparison of the two cities.

Slow down on Ometepe

Located right in the middle of Lago de Nicaragua, Ometepe is an extraordinarily scenic island formed by two joined volcanoes called Concepcion and Maderas.

Hiking the volcanoes, kayaking and mountain biking are the main activities here.

But if that sounds exhausting, Ometepe is also a wonderful place to unwind. Read a book in a hammock while enjoying lakeshore views, or take a swim in the island’s thermal springs. Be sure to spend at least a couple of nights on the island!

Board down a volcano

In Nicaragua you can go volcano boarding… yes, you read that right!

This improbable combination of words means exactly what you’d think it does: you hike up a volcano and then glide all the way down on a board. Nicaragua claims to be the only place in the world where you can do this.

There are a number of different operators with tours leaving from Leon, with some using speed meters to keep score of everyone’s top speed. Some people do get injured while volcano boarding, so have fun but be careful.

Snorkel, dive or fish on the Corn Islands

The Corn Islands are Nicaragua’s remote outposts on the Caribbean side. Most native islanders here have more in common culturally with Caribbean islands than they do with the Nicaraguan mainland, and you will find that most people speak English.  The islands have almost no traffic, with small golf carts being the main form of transportation.

Both Big Corn Island and Little Corn Island make for excellent bases for snorkeling, SCUBA diving or ocean fishing.

While it is possible to get to nearby Bluefields by bus and then take a ferry, this journey takes very long and runs along very badly maintained roads through the jungle. It’s easiest to simply fly to Big Corn Island from Managua.

Party in San Juan del Sur

San Juan is Nicaragua’s number one surfer and backpacker party hotspot. It’s a place that may not appeal to everyone, but in truth, it can be a very fun place to let loose or get stuck.

It’s definitely very gringo-fied and is home to a plethora of backpacker hostels, but it’s still a very small and laidback town—and a far cry from the slick beach developments in countries like Mexico.

There are regular movie nights and pub crawls in town, as well as the legendary Sunday Funday, which is essentially a big wild pool party with great sunset views. You can check their Instagram for more details.

If you are on some kind of anthropological cultural-immersion trip through Central America, this clearly isn’t where you want to be. I must warn you, this is Nicaragua and the parties go hard! 

San Juan is home to several notorious hostels where games of beer pong and other party events take place very often. I’ll just warn you that these are not for anyone wanting a good night’s rest. Check hostel descriptions if you wish to avoid this, or stay in one of the guesthouses or small hotels.

San Juan del Sur is not all about partying, mind you. You can take fishing or snorkelling trips from here, hike up to the town’s Jesus statue overlooking the bay, or learn Spanish in one of the many affordable language schools.

Several beautiful beaches are just a short jeep ride away: the playas Hermosa, Marsella and Maderas.

Surf and swim at playa Maderas

If you are seeking a more tranquil place near San Juan then all you need to do is head to Playa Naderas, which is about a 20-30 minute drive north from town. Jeeps and pickup trucks regularly take passengers from San Juan throughout the day.

The beach in San Juan town itself may not be anything special, but Maderas is gorgeous.

At this beach I stayed at Hostal 3 Hermanos for a week (you can’t book it online, so you just have to go there in person).

There’s nothing like waking up in the morning and going for a run on an empty beach with hundreds of little crabs dispersing in your path. Around noon people from San Juan begin to arrive making the place very lively, though it turns completely quiet again around 5 pm. It’s a magical place that has very much the opposite vibe of San Juan, so if you need to detox or are just in the mood for a calmer atmosphere, you’ll find it here.

Hear the roar of an active volcano

Besides volcano boarding, Leon is also a great base from which to go on volcano hikes.

I can highly recommend hiking up to the top of Mount Telica, a still-active volcano. You can lie down on your belly and peek over the edge of the crater to see the lava below, where it’s an immediate drop of hundreds of meters.

The hike up is beautiful and not too strenuous, though go with a guide as there are scorpions, tarantulas and rattlesnakes to avoid on the way.

It’s possible to take a day trip or to camp at the top and stay the night there. Apparently, it’s also possible to drive up the volcano and only walk the last bit, but the hike is wonderful and makes reaching the crater feel all the more rewarding.

Another popular volcano hike goes up to Volcan Masaya, which is not far from Granada. I didn’t do this hike but heard it’s great as well.

Float around the crater lake of Apoyo

Near Granada, you will find a lake in the middle of a volcano crater, which is a great place to swim around and enjoy the sun, or to go kayaking or paragliding. Visit the nearby town of Catarina for a great panoramic view of the lake. The town is also famous for its pottery and other handicrafts and is a great place to pick up some souvenirs.


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