Nicaragua was our favorite country in Central America as it had so much to offer, and for cheap! Below we’ll share our experiences of seeing an active volcano erupt, volcano boarding (yes!!), sampling 10+ rums, seeing red hot magma, swimming in cold springs + basking at their amazing beaches. The places we visited in Nicaragua were Leon, Granada and Ometepe Island.
What Good Value! It’s not hard to get used to meals for under $5 and in some cases $1 beers/cocktails! One of our favorite happy hour experiences was 4 Mojitos for $4 in Granada. Ah yes, you can’t get happier than that! Our cheapest restaurant experience included 6 drinks & 2 mains for under $12. This is the type of budget we like to work with!
Traveling through Nicaragua, we learned that the average wage is under $10 a day, and that’s on the higher end of the scale. It’s quite a shocking number and something that puts your privileged situation into perspective.
Regardless of the poverty, the country was beautiful and we really enjoyed it. There are tons of jungles, beaches, volcanoes and cities to explore, all with unique scenery and lovely people. We felt safe throughout our time there, though you have to be alert & street smart.
Leon is the second largest city in Nicaragua and is growing very popular with backpackers and large tour groups as it’s the perfect base to explore the surrounding areas which offer beaches, volcanoes and hikes. We recommend using Tierra Tours for touring Leon.
The center of Leon has a small handful of museums, art galleries, colorful colonial architecture, a cathedral (under construction) and churches. It also has a wide range of restaurants and bars, none of which are noticed from a look down the street. We found all the restaurants tucked away behind big wooden doors, entries that look small but through the doors they open up to HUGE spaces.
A few restaurants to mention in Leon:
- Nicaraguita Cafe – Cheap prices, big portions & great smoothies.
- El Bodegon– #1 on trip advisor in Leon and rightfully so. They offered delicious frozen mojitos accompanied by a basic yet inviting menu. It’s written on a chalkboard and can be quite confusing so be sure to ask if you don’t want a surprise meal.
- Pan and Paz – French bakery serving breakfast lunch and dinner. Very cheap and quality French breads.
- Carnivoro – Nicaraguan steak house! Filet Mignons for $12? Don’t mind if we do!
- Via Via – If you happen to be here on Monday night, you should play their game of Disco Bingo, however we recommend eating elsewhere as the food is a complete hit or miss.
- El Sesteo – The oldest restaurant in town, diverse menu from typical local food and beverages to fast food.
- La Olla Quemada – Great bar with a mix of locals and tourists. The cheapest drinks we’ve ever had. They also have live reggae music most nights.
Although we stayed at a hotel organized by our guide, for fellow backpackers, below are 2 hostels recommended by fellow travelers we met in Leon.
- Lazy Bones Hostels – Dorm rooms for as low as $8. Swimming pool too.
- Big Foot Hostels – They have a few located around Central America and are a well known hostel chain. The location in Leon runs its own volcano boarding tour which is a must do, this hostel is also known for party goers.
Live Volcano Eruption!
As a bonus surprise while we were en route to go volcano boarding, we drove through the jungle and before anyone else, Jacob noticed a huge cloud of smoke forming in the sky, soon after we realized that that wasn’t normal and it was in fact Telica Volcano erupting right there and then. We jumped out of the van, took a ton of photos and watched in amazement as the smoke billowed up and up. We were extremely lucky to see such a site, and even our guide was beyond ecstatic, jumping about in his seat and calling the tour office. Another once in a lifetime event to add to our list of experiences and very grateful!
What’s scary, is just the day before the volcano erupted we were offered a twilight hiking tour up that very same volcano. Thankfully we declined or we may be in the sky too?!
Volcano boarding? Who even knew this was a thing? We sure didn’t. You cant really call it a “sport” but it’s definitely a hit of adrenaline as you fly down the volcanic ash on a wooden board, steering yourself with a rope and using your heels to break.
Our tour company, Tierra Tours recommended to sit down on the board, even if you can snowboard, because it is a whole lot different to being on snow. You didn’t have to convince Emily twice to sit. A pro snow-boarder from our tour, did try stand and everyone had a good laugh as he tumbled multiple times down the volcano. But good on him.
After a 1.5 hour hike up Cerro Negro Volcano we reached the top to views that words nor pictures can describe. We geared up in the very fashionable jumpsuits, gloves, goggles and face masks to prepare for the 2 minute descent straight down the side of the volcano. It was SO hot sitting on the top whilst you waited for your turn to head down and the anticipation was a mix of nerves, excitement & sweat.
The most recent eruption of Cerro Negro took place in 1999 and unfortunately caused quite some damage to the city of Leon.
We wish we could have gone up twice but that involved another 1.5 hour hike and unfortunately we didn’t have time. The ride down was as quick as you wanted it to be. To slow down you had to dig your heals further into the ash or to speed up, lean back and relax your feet but once you gained speed it was almost impossible to slow down again. We were covered in ash from head to toe and our shoes and socks were filled with ash, but that’s all part of the fun.
Volcano boarding is a must do when visiting Nicaragua and something that is so unique to the country.
Surfing & Beaches in Nicaragua
Surfing is very popular in Nicaragua and there are many surf schools and rental companies that occupy space along the beaches. It’s quite an experience to be driven in the back of pickup truck, something highly illegal in Australia!
Big Foot Hostels have shuttles that run to the beaches from Leon or if you’re staying elsewhere in town you can take a pick up truck (seen above) aka a taxi or the slower public bus to the beaches.
Be careful on the rips & tides on these beaches as they are very strong!
One of Jacob’s all time favorite drinks is dark rum, so when we heard of a rum tasting for just $20, Jacob jumped on board quick smart. At this tasting, you learn about the history and origin of rum in Nicaragua, and of course got to “sample” aka have a full shot of all the different types of rum.
The tasting held at Via Via restaurant lasted for 3 full hours, sampling 10 different rums, from a 25 year old rum down to the cheap and nasty. The favorite was the blend the guide actually made for himself, created from the leftovers of all the bottles + chocolate and coffee beans. Who would have thought?
Fun Fact! You can tell if a spirit is good quality by pouring some on your hands, if it’s sticky then it is bad quality due to the added colors or preservatives. Good quality spirits will easily run off without any stickiness.
As you can imagine, free pour made for a very intoxicated & fun evening!
For Something Different… Yoga & Surf Eco-Resort!
42km north of Leon lies a town by the name of Chinandega. Although we didn’t visit here, two very close friends of ours did and they offered to share their experience with us.
“El Coco Loco Resort is a yoga and surfing eco-resort, and it was one of the best experiences I’ve had! They offer yoga certification packages in addition to surf packages, combo packages, and volunteering opportunities. They do a lot of work within the area and employ locals. And the food — omg! The food is all local and fresh, and every meal was incredible, including all the homemade desserts. By the end, I felt like I’d been there for more than a week and wanted to stay for much, much longer. “
We wish we had more time to be able to second this opinion considering Yoga is something both of us need to do and surfing is something we like to improve when given the opportunity. Maybe next time!
After passing through the capital, Managua, we arrived in Granada, on the shores of Lake Nicaragua. Granada is one of the most characteristic and colourful colonial towns in Central America.
Spanish School – We spent 2 days here in Granada, but could have easily spent longer in this town, and wished we had the time to attend a Spanish School. They are located around the town and it’s a great way to learn Spanish whilst living like the locals. Something we both regret not doing. Had we have traveled on our own we could have had the opportunity but considering we chose to travel with a group, it didn’t allow any flexibility for this. We can’t have it all!
Food & Drink – Check out our fav restaurant Garden Café (YUM!) for lunch and for happy hour, head to Calle La Calzada (shown below), Granada’s main restaurant/bar street. We found so many cool bars to sit at, including a bar with $1 mojitos! The best we’ve had actually. Quite surprising considering the cost. When you start to feel peckish again, have a meal at Nectar and watch the street performers dance right in front.
You could check out the Masaya Markets or go for a free (with a pass from hotel) work out at PURE Gym – Spa – Yoga. We also treated ourselves to a massage and pool day at the Choco Museum. The same museum we attended the work shop at in Antigua, Guatemala.
Masaya National Park – Magma, Volcanoes and Bat Caves!
Considering we had seen a couple of volcanoes by day, we took to the evening to visit Granada’s most well known active volcano inside of Masaya National Park. Tierra Tours runs the night Volcano tours from the centre of Granada.
At the volcano, we were able to peer right into the gates of hell, simply by peeking over the edge of the barriers. Down below was red hot lava and a continuous stream of smoke and sulfur gas that swayed with the direction of the wind. The sulfur gas caused us to cough soon enough, so we didn’t stay for too long.
During sunset, it was a surreal experience to see the crater with a variety of colors due to the sun, lava & smoke. Once the sun went down we could see the glow of red lava coming from the bottom of the volcano. Another experience to add to the book!
We also went underground and visited some lava tunnels / bat caves which stretch for hundreds of kilometres under the earth. A creepy experience!
For a detailed description of what else to do in Granada, you’ll find all the information you need here.
After the world’s slowest ferry, we crossed Lake Nicaragua, the largest lake in Central America and arrived on the tranquil Ometepe Island which is an island in the middle of the lake. This lake was once a large ocean bay, but volcanic activity caused the land to rise, cutting it off from the sea which left the lake with fresh water sharks and other salt-water species. The name of the island means “between two hills” and was formed by the two volcanoes, Concepción and Madera.
Ojo de Agua (Cold Springs) is worth a visit. $3 entry and you can relax in the natural spring pools filled with crystal clear water from an underground river that comes from volcano Maderas. There’s a swing and a tightrope to try your skills at too, and $1 coconuts to enjoy! $3 extra for rum.
We spent 2 nights at Hotel Villa Paraíso but it would have been good to spend longer, apart from the fact there were a ridiculous amount of bugs – literally billions of them! Our hotel looked right out onto the lake, which at first we thought was the ocean due to it’s unusual crashing waves. Ometepe is peaceful, low key and a relaxing place to spend a few days.
If you’re here on a Sunday, make sure you do Sunday Funday which is a big bar crawl that hops around different hostels – we heard a lot about it, but unfortunately we were not here on a Sunday.
Tour Over! Now on our own.
Two months traveling through Central America with a tour company is now over 🙁 but what a blast! Experiencing different cultures, meeting & interacting with beautiful people, eating bloody delicious food – it’s why you travel and Central America did not disappoint. The colors, variety and new experiences were a real treat and it made it extra awesome to spend it with an amazing tour guide.
Now we’re on our own and it’s time we went back to our computers and figured out how to get from A to B. Something that we haven’t done once in the last 5 weeks! How’s that Spanish going?
Stay tuned for our Costa Rica and Panama posts soon.
Married Days Survived: 271