FAMILY TRAVEL GUIDE TO NICARAGUA
Before we even left on our trip we were very excited about getting to Nicaragua because we had heard it was the next Costa Rica. What this meant to us was that it had lots of natural flora and fauna, great options for outdoor fun like zip-lining, whitewater rafting, and other extreme adventure sports, and world-class beaches, but all at a cheaper price than its southern neighbor. It didn’t disappoint. The infrastructure is pretty well developed around the primary tourist Granada-Ometepe-San Juan del Sur circuit, and you shouldn’t miss it, but there are up-and-coming places in the north, and the fantastic Ometepe Island that deserve your consideration as well.
We entered Nicaragua from Honduras in the north at El Espino. We choose this border because it was rumored to be less busy than the crossing further south at Guasule. Because things turned out to be easy as far as border crossings go, we returned to Honduras from Nicaragua at this crossing as well. See here for information about our border crossings.
The higher elevation area around the city of Somoto offers cooler temperatures, which we loved, and lots of outdoor adventure that we wished we had taken more advantage. The region offers a great variety of flora, fauna, hiking, and the Grand Canyon of Somoto. We had a tour lined up to swim/tube through the canyon, but the guide (who we arranged at our hotel) called it off because the water level was too high. Although it was a disappointment, I have no complaints because I like to see this level of responsibility from people whom I entrust with my and my family’s safety.
In Somoto, we stayed at Hotel El Rosario, a basic family-run hotel with six or seven private rooms ($20) around a driveway hemmed in by avocado trees (the fruit was not ripe when we were there, but we took one anyway). We also spent a night in the nearby village of Condega, at Hostal La Granja ($35), near the main plaza. Both towns are small, but have enough eating options and street life to make things interesting for a night or two.
Our next stop was Leon. In our opinion, the only reason to go to Leon is to arrange a tour to volcano board down the active Cerro Negro volcano. There are many companies in Leon offering essentially the same tour for the same price ($30 per person) but we recommend Quetzal Trekkers. We didn’t use this company (opting for the convenience of booking with the tour offered by the place we stayed - the Lazy Bones Hostel), but once we got to the volcano, and mingled with the other tour groups, it was obvious that Quetzal Trekkers was the better outfit. It had better equipment, allowed for two runs down the mountain instead of one, and a portion of your cost is donated to local causes. Quetzal Trekkers also offers an option to camp out on the volcano overnight.
Whatever tour operator you choose, there is only one way up the volcano – a 40-minute hike. It’s a fairly strenuous walk and we ended up carrying our kids’ equipment, but that’s just because we are really nice parents. Take your time and enjoy the views (and the steady breeze).
Apart from the volcano, Leon is an historic, colonial city and has an extreme number of churches (both intact and in ruins) if you are into that sort of thing. You can climb the tower of the Catedral on the main plaza for outstanding views.
We stayed at the Lazy Bones ($36), which is a few blocks from the main plaza. The hostel has shared bathrooms, but was clean and affordable, has lots of common areas to hang out, a pool table, and a pool. We parked our van in the street outside the hostel overnight with no problems. There are plenty of places to eat cheaply nearby, including a platter of beef tongue, if you like. Our only issue with Leon is that it was really, really hot.
From Leon we went to Laguna de Apoyo. This is a fantastic family destination and we highly recommend it. The lake water is cool, clear, and perfect for swimming. There are several places to stay around the lake but we really liked Hostal Paradiso. It has a great beach, complimentary paddleboards and kayaks, a floating raft, and good, reasonably priced food at the beachfront restaurant.
We camped in our van in the interior parking lot for $8 per person, per night, but there are private rooms and dorms available as well. You can also buy a day-use pass for the beach and grounds for $8 per person.
Granada is a short drive from the Laguna. I really liked Granada. From a historical perspective, it has a lot to recommend it relating to the Pirate Sir Henry Morgan, the American conqueror William Walker, and the refurbishment of the decaying Spanish colonial city built on the shores of Lake Nicaragua. There are many old buildings, churches, and an armory and you can take a horse-drawn carriage ride to most of the sites for $20 if you bargain hard.
Granada has plenty of nice accommodations and you definitely won’t starve. Regarding accommodations, you may want to check any last minute deals for hotels in town, but expect to pay upwards of $50 a night for a nicer version of a room with a pool. We stayed at Hotel Antigua Estacion ($77). It was expensive for our budget, but we conceded because it was a converted old colonial style house with beautiful landscaped grounds, was clean, had a pool, and included breakfast.
Regarding eats, take your pick of international options lining the pedestrian street (Calle la Calzada) from the main plaza down to the Lake. For cheaper eats, there is a grocery just a few blocks from the Hotel Antigua Estacion, and the typical street food scene nearby as well.
Granada is an ideal base to kayak the Las Isletas archipelago in Lake Nicaragua as well as for day trips to Volcan Mombacho - to hike, visit the biological center or a coffee farm, or do a canopy tour.
One of the great things about Nicaragua is that it is relatively flat. The drive from Granada to San Juan del Sur (SJDS) is only a few hours. SJDS is a popular gringo hang out, and the beach is loaded with boats anchored just off shore and the streets are jammed with bars and restaurants. There’s a large ex-pat and surfer community here, and it’s a great place to walk around and get supplied, but we didn’t like it as a swimming beach or for the party scene. We suggest you stay north - at Playa Maderas or Playa Marsella.
You can catch a shuttle out of SJDS to Playas Maderas or Marsella as a day trip, but by doing this you won’t get to enjoy them at their best – empty, when all the day trippers have gone back to SJDS. The sunsets are beautiful and peaceful.
Both beaches have a decent assortment of accommodations. The big breaks at Playa Maderas are more suitable for surfing, and you will find many beginners in the wash here. Playa Marsella is much more tranquillo, and better for younger kids, and for swimming generally. The beaches are close to each other, though to get from one to the other you have to go around the point on the connecting road, rather than around the point by sea or directly over it. But both beaches are worth visiting.
We stayed a week at Playa Maderas at the Hulakai Hotel, at the top of the hill. The rooms here are expensive for overlanders, but the young American owner took a liking to us – because we were a family traveling – and cut us a good deal for the week. It still cost us nearly $500 including several family style meals. The hotel boasts a great pool, with awesome views, good wifi, clean rooms, and delicious and filling family style dinners ($13 per person). Hulakai also does a Taco Tuesday for an additional cost, which includes entertainment (including fire twirling!) Taco Tuesday is open to the public.
We also spent a few weeks at Playa Marsella. We spent one week at the Aussie Hut ($30 per adult; kids free), a large, beautiful palapa built steps from the beach. We also spent some time camped in the front yard of our friends house in the Bosques del Mar, a private, residential community that is a short walk from the beach. Bosques may have some longer term rentals available from private owners and may also have some beachside cabanas available to rent from management. You should arrange either of these rental options before you arrive.
Ometepe Island, with its two towering volcanoes that beckon you to hike; pristine, natural swimming holes and lake front beaches that beckon you to swim; and its laid-back, hippie vibe, is a must visit. There are lots of opportunities on the island of varying degrees of desirability to arrange a workaway, through workaway.info, but you could also easily find accommodations and ways to fill up your day without committing a portion of it to someone else’s endeavor.
You catch the ferry to Ometepe in San Jorge, near Rivas. There are apparently several different ferry companies, but we couldn’t tell the difference. We took the El Che a car/truck ferry with ample passenger seating (and life vests!). Expect to be hit with various fees and taxes, but overall, if you aren’t bringing a vehicle, it isn’t that bad. For the four of us, we paid 200 Cordobas (about $10), 90 cord in port fees, and a 74 cord import tax. For the van we paid a 500 cord car tax ($25). Ouch! To be fair though, we got a receipt and I didn’t see any of our money go in anyone’s pocket.
The ferry docks in Moyogalpa. We spent our first and last nights on the island there, at Hospedaje Soma ($45), in a clean, spacious room, with hot water and lots of shelves and hooks. The hotel is a short walk north of the dock (left on the main road) but clean, quiet, and comfortable. And a good breakfast is included. The hotel can arrange tours for any of the island activities.
During the two weeks of our workaway experience, we camped in the parking lot of the hotel Porvenir. The hotel had nice grounds, decent rooms (some friends of ours spent a few nights so we got to see inside the rooms. I think it was $11 per person), but a weird vibe from the staff. Maybe they got tired of us being there so long and paying almost nothing (we only paid $3 a night to camp.) The hotel is located more centrally in the island, on the road to Balgue, and about a thirty minute drive from Moyogalpa (the island is bigger than you think.) The food here is okay, but the kids preferred pizza night at the nearby El Zopilote.
As far as activities, I easily arranged a guide for myself and two others to hike Vulcan Concepcion, the larger of the two volcanoes on the island. This hike took every minute of the nine hours that the guide said it would. And aside from the satisfaction of prevailing to the top, it was a bit of a letdown. Once we summited, there was nothing to see or do but descend. The summit was shrouded in fog so there was no view, the volcano crater was shrouded in steam vapor so there was no lava, and the wind was relentless. Plus it was raining. Still, if you like a challenge, I recommend this hike.
I would have also hiked the other volcano, Maderas, but saw too many people exiting the trail head at the end of the day covered in mud. There may be better and worse times to attempt this hike. You would have to ask the guides.
Ojo de Agua, near Tilgue, is a crystal clear swimming hole that is definitely worth visiting ($3 per person) for a few hours break from the heat. And swimming on Playa Santo Domingo, past Tilgue on the road to Balgue, is nice. You can watch the kite surfers (or try it yourself), participate in a baseball game with the locals, or, if you are there in the late afternoon, enjoy the view as the cowboys bring their herd (both cows and horses) to the lake shores to drink and play in the water.
There are lots of other things to do on the island, nature preserves, fishing, waterfall hikes, moto rentals, but the highlight of our Ometepe time was our experience at our workaway. I won’t get into all the details of that here, but I did blog about it.
When the time came to leave Nicaragua, we exited to Costa Rica at Penas Blancas, which is about an hour from San Juan del Sur and the only crossing on the west (Pacific) side of the country. We returned to Nicaragua from Costa Rica at this crossing as well. See here for information about our border crossings.