15 Top-Rated Attractions & Things to Do in Nicaragua
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Biodiverse and naturally beautiful, Nicaragua is a still off-the-grid destination, filled with active volcanoes, cloud forests, jungles, lakes, and two coastlines, all boasting plenty of attractions and things to do.
Outdoor adventure enthusiasts can hike to natural attractions like crater lakes in dormant volcanos or sled down mountains of ash on wooden boards. While those in search of wildlife experiences can explore one of the many protected reserves around Nicaragua that are home to everything from jaguars to howler and white-faced monkeys and hundreds of species of birds.
With beaches on both its Caribbean and Pacific Ocean coastlines, there are plenty of options for getting wet as well. Towns like San Juan del Sur on the Pacific Ocean's Emerald Coast near Costa Rica are top places to visit, famous for their colorful architecture and surf scene. While the Corn Islands in the Caribbean Sea are known for their laid-back beach vibe.
Managua is Nicaragua's capital city, but people tend not to linger here unless visiting for business. Many things to do really lie in the smaller cities, like Leon and Granada, which are known for their colorful architecture and churches, and natural attractions such as Lake Nicaragua. It is the largest freshwater lake in Central America and home to hundreds upon hundreds of islands, including some with amazing ecolodges.
And then there are the multitude of volcanoes, some dormant; others, like the Masaya Volcano, still very much active. Here are our picks for the top things to see and do around Nicaragua.
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1. Islets of Granada
Lake Nicaragua is home to 365 small islands that form an archipelago known as Las Isletas or Islets of Granada, due to their location southeast of the colonial city of Granada. The islets are more than 25,000 years old, initially formed from the ash and stones of the Mombacho volcano.
While some islets are deserted, others have limited development, mostly in the form of ecolodges. Jicaro Island Lodge is one such place. The boutique property is truly special, a place where you can disconnect to reconnect with nature. And you can explore the other islets by SUP board or kayak from the dock at Jicaro if you're staying here.
The accommodation at Jicaro Island Lodge is in two-story wooden treehouses that have an indoor/outdoor vibe and truly feel like sleeping in the midst of the jungle (but are protected from mosquitoes and other biting bugs).
2. Corn Islands
In the Caribbean Sea, about 70 kilometers off Nicaragua's east coast, the Corn Islands are where to go for a laid-back holiday. Big Corn is where you will usually arrive (there are flights from Managua), but you can sleep on either isle.
Despite its name, the Big Corn is actually quite small, and you can bike around it in about an hour. The beaches here are beautiful, light-gold-sand affairs fronted by crystal-clear, turquoise water that stays warm year-round.
From Big Corn, it is a 40-minute boat ride to Little Corn. The tiny island has some accommodation and eating options but no banks or vehicles. You can walk around Little Corn in less than an hour.
There is excellent diving in the reefs off both the Corn Islands, which is why many people visit.
3. Masaya Volcano
Protected in the country's largest national park, the Masaya Volcano is also one of Nicaragua's top places to visit, just 20 kilometers south of Nicaragua's capital city of Managua.
The most amazing part about visiting this active volcano is how close you can get to the lip of the crater in a private vehicle - you simply drive right up to the edge and park, although you have to park facing downhill in case an emergency evacuation is necessary.
Looking down into the crater, you can see a lake of molten lava. Visit after dark to see the glow the bubbling lava creates inside the pit. If you visit during the day, there is a museum on-site, as well as picnic facilities.
The volcano can be visited on a day trip from Managua or Granada.
4. Cerro Negro
If you want to get your adrenaline pumping a bit then head to Cerro Negro. One of the youngest volcanoes in the world, it last erupted in 1999 and features a dramatic black cone.
While it's still considered active, today most people head to Cerro Negro to try their skills at volcano surfing. The sport involves riding down the side of the volcano's black ash on a wooden surfboard. You'll be wearing a boiler suit and goggles for protection, and you can reach speeds of upwards of 60 miles per hour. The boards can either be ridden sled style (sitting down) or standing up like a surf or snowboard.
Note that to ride down the volcano, you have to hike up. The trek takes about 40 minutes. Most people try this on an organized adventure tour.
5. Mombacho Volcano Nature Preserve
Located atop the dormant Mombacho Volcano, this nature preserve includes a unique cloud forest landscape and covers 2,500 acres. It sits to the southwest of Managua, just 10 kilometers from the colonial town of Granada and magnificent Lake Nicaragua.
Surrounded by rural farms and coffee plantations, the landscape is beautiful. The reserve is known for its prolific, colorful and fragrant flora, with more than 800 species of plants growing here.
There are also hundreds of animal species making their home on Mombacho, including the bright red and green quetzal bird and a number of monkey species such as white-faced monkeys and howler monkeys. The best way to experience the preserve is on one of the many hiking trails running through it.
The reserve is also home to a tourist center, where you can pick up a guide to hike around one of the four volcanic craters, all covered with a rare type of cloud forest that is only found in one other spot in Nicaragua: the Maderas volcano on Ometepe Island.
6. Lake Nicaragua
When Spanish colonists first saw Lake Nicaragua, it was so vast, they thought it was a sea. In reality, it is Central America's largest lake at 177 kilometers long with an average width of 57 kilometers. It is home to more than 365 small islets and larger islands, like Ometepe, with two volcanos, in the lake's center.
Another interesting fact about Lake Nicaragua is that it is the only freshwater lake to have ocean animals, including sharks. It is believed the lake was once a sea bay, but then a volcano erupted, trapping marine life and turning it into an inland lake. Over the millennia, the marine life has adapted to living in freshwater.
7. San Juan del Sur
In southwest Nicaragua, on the Emerald Coast, near the border with Costa Rica, San Juan del Sur is a vibrant town with a large expat community and an excellent surf beach just 20 miles to the north. The town itself is filled with colorful buildings and murals. There is also a large Christ of the Mercy statue perched on a hill overlooking the city below that is worth a hike up for sunset, especially to experience the views.
And then there is the long gold-sand meets Pacific Ocean Playa Maderas beach, which is also lined with small hotels and eco-resorts. It picks up most of the swells that hit Nicaragua and is best approached at medium to high tide.
The beach is also known for its long, drawn-out sunsets with an amazing display of bright, shifting colors.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in San Juan del Sur
8. Somoto Canyon National Monument
Discovered accidentally in 2004 by two Czech geologists, Somoto Canyon National Monument is now a protected gorge in northern Nicaragua about 2.5 hours from Leon.
The scenery here is stunningly beautiful, and this is also another perfect destination for adrenaline addicts. You can book four- or six-hour descents of the narrowest section of the gorge. Both trips require rock scrambles, floating down rapids in inner tubes, and jumping from high cliffs into deep pools. The six-hour trip also includes rappelling down cliffs into bat-filled caves. Either way this is an adventurous day trip.
9. Isla Ometepe
Isla Ometepe is in Lake Nicaragua, the largest freshwater lake in Central America and also home to the Islets of Granada. The island has not one but two volcanos, both of which can be climbed.
Maderas is the volcano in the south of Ometepe, and it is less active than the Concepcion volcano in the north. The hike to the summit of Maderas takes you to a beautiful crater lake. There is also an impressive waterfall at the base that cascades for almost 50 meters down a sheer rock wall.
The island is also popular for horseback riding, mountain biking, or kayaking the Istian River that runs through it. You can also just laze on the white sands of Santo Domingo beach.
10. Bosawas Biosphere Reserve
Second only in size to the Amazon rainforest in Brazil, Nicaragua's Bosawas Biosphere Reserve was established in 1997 to protect the biodiversity found in this northern corner of the country. The reserve also protects the free flow of species between Mexico and Central America.
A birder's paradise, you'll find that 600 of the 790 bird species that call Nicaragua home live in this reserve. You'll also find plenty of mammals, including jaguars, Baird's tapir, and spider monkeys in the trees and on the forest floor.
Colorful Granada is a wonderful old city to wander for an afternoon. It is home to some of the best-preserved architecture in Nicaragua, including a number of buildings and churches constructed in Spanish colonial style.
Here, you'll find Convento San Francisco, which is one of the oldest churches in Central America. It has an unmissable Tiffany blue facade, and inside, you'll find one of Nicaragua's top museums, dedicated to the country's pre-Columbian people. There are also restaurants, shops, and coffee houses with sidewalk seating around its main square.
Granada is a popular base for exploring the islands in Lake Nicaragua on whose shore it sits.
12. Reserva Natural Miraflor
From cooling off under icy waterfalls to horseback riding or trekking in search of some 300 species of birds that live here, including the bright queen quetzal, there is plenty to keep you naturally entertained at Reserva Natural Miraflor.
This reserve in Nicaragua's north covers three climate zones, including dry forest and cloud forest. Visitors can also participate in community tourism projects here at coffee cooperatives. These give you a chance to spend a night with a local family and get a glimpse into their culture and way of life.
Home to Nicaragua's National University, Leon is considered the country's intellectual capital. The city is also known for its cathedral, art museums, and growing food scene. Leon's cathedral is Central America's biggest, and merges Baroque and Neoclassical styles.
Just a few blocks north of the cathedral is Iglesia de la Recoleccion, which is a beautiful church dating back to 1786. It is built in Mexican-style Baroque design and features a distinct, deep-yellow facade with cream trim. While strolling the walkable downtown, also keep an eye out for murals and graffiti dating back to the political war of the 1980s.
You can also visit the 16th-century ruins of Leon Viejo (old Leon), a UNESCO World Heritage site, and one of the first Spanish colonial settlements in the Americas. These ruins are just a short drive from Leon.
14. Apoyo Lagoon Natural Reserve
Less than a 30-minute drive from Granada, Apoyo Lagoon Natural Reserve is a giant volcanic crater lake that was created more than 20,000 years ago when the original volcano's cone imploded.
The lake is about 198 meters deep and is so big that when the wind blows hard enough, there are waves big enough to windsurf. The lake is also fed by volcanic fumaroles that keep the water warm and slightly salty.
Activities include kayaking, swimming, scuba diving to explore thermal vents, or just chilling at one of the restaurants on the beachfront.
15. San Juan de Oriente
If you are in the market for ceramic handicrafts, whether in the form of ornately decorated vases or functional cookware, pay a visit to the village of San Juan de Oriente. Located about 45 kilometers from Managua, it is known as the "town of potters," and the artisans here have been creating beautiful pieces out of clay since before the Spanish conquistadors invaded the region.
Upon entering the small town, which has a beautiful setting overlooking the Masaya lagoon, you'll see dozens of pottery shops. The majority of people here earn their living creating colorful works of art and are very friendly and happy to share their work and the stories behind it with travelers. Most of the shops are family-run affairs, with one member in charge of the carving and design, another overseeing the kiln, and a third polishing the finished product.
Some names to look for while shopping include Gregorio Bracamonte's recreations of pre-Columbian jaguar vases (the artist passed away in 2019, making his work even more valuable today); and Helio Guitérrez, who is known for his bold geometric designs.
For working kitchenware that includes intricate designs, visit Miguel Angel Calero's shop. His pieces are also known for their highly polished, glass-like shine, and he has been called a local Michelangelo.
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Central America: This part of the world offers many great adventures and intriguing destinations. To the south of Nicaragua, Cost Rica is fill with natural attractions, beaches, and incredible opportunities to see wildlife. Also worth checking out in Central America are the sights of Guatemala. Lakes, volcanoes, culture, and history make this a country worth working into your itinerary.