The time to go to Nicaragua is now.
Even though I have settled back into daily life in Chicago for the near future, I found myself with two weeks to spare between jobs. While October in Chicago is perfectly fine, and nowhere near as brutal as the months of January and February, I couldn’t pass up this golden opportunity to take a mini trip. I had been back in the states for a little over 3 months, from my 9 month trip to Africa, Thailand, India, and Europe, and was starting to itch for another adventure, so the timing was perfect!
Because I only had a little over 2 weeks to spare (and little time to plan), I knew that a trip back out to Asia or Africa would not be in the cards. Instead, I turned my focus to more close to home, Central or South America. I had spent two months in rural Guatemala back in the summer of 2010 volunteering at a shelter for migrants, right near the Mexico border. Even though it was very difficult and physically demanding work, the region will always hold a special place in my heart as the first time I left the borders of the good ole’ USA.
South America is a continent still vastly untouched by me, except for a month spent in Brazil during the World Cup in 2014. I still have hopes of backpacking through this wondrous continent someday in the future, so I decided to focus my attention on a country in Central America for this short trip.
Honduras and El Salvador are currently not the safest places in the world to be, and while Honduras is known to be a great place to gain licensure in scuba diving, the quality of the dive sites isn’t too good. Costa Rica is a popular destination for many Americans and others tourists, but as I did some more research, I was shocked by the high prices and how heavily tourist-driven some parts of the country seemed.
That left me with Nicaragua. Nicaragua has a history of bloodshed and fighting due to the Sandinistas and the Contra War that followed in the 1980s. However, now it is a perfectly safe place to travel, and I never felt unsafe or threatened in my two weeks there. Bordering Costa Rica to the north, Nicaragua shares much of the same topography that draws hordes of tourists to Costa Rica-mountainous active volcanoes, rich green highlands, and the pounding surf and beautiful beaches along the Pacific Coast. Choosing Nicaragua was a no brainer for me. It shares all of the same beauty as Costa Rica, but without the volumes of tourists or the high prices. I don’t know how long this will last, especially with China lobbying heavily to build their own version of the Panama Canal through here, but you should aim to go now. Who knows what this country will look like if it goes through.
What most Americans don’t know is how accessible Nicaragua is. I booked my roundtrip flight from Chicago to Managua, the capital, only a few days before I left, but it cost only $400! I had a layover in Miami, so if you’re flying directly from there, you could probably find flights in the $200 range, with a flight time of only 2.5 hours! *Note that I visited Nicaragua in the low (rainy) season of October. I’m not sure of flight prices during the high season (December-April), but imagine they’d be a bit higher.
Visas are available on arrival for most nationalities, if you are staying 30 days or less. Costing only $10, the process was quick and smooth, taking only a few minutes. The agent asked me a few questions, then stamped my passport and collected my $10 USD. Much easier than in some countries! (*cough crooked Cambodia cough*)
The Cordoba is the official currency of Nicaragua (was about 28C to $1 USD as of October 2016), but many prices (especially in the tourism sector) are quoted in USD, although they will accept the equivalent amount in cordobas. ATMS can withdraw either cordobas or dollars, so there really isn’t any advantage here.
When to Go
The high season for Central America is December to April, due to the warm temperatures, minimal rainfall, and non-hurricane season.
September through November are considered to be the low season, due to the risk of hurricanes in the Caribbean and the heavy rainfall that can be known to occur. I don’t know if I just happened to be there at the right time, but I experienced minimal rainfall during my two weeks. It poured at night for several days, but I was already in bed for the night so it didn’t have an effect on my plans. In fact, I spent the majority of my two weeks outside, either on the beach, scuba diving, hiking, or volcano boarding!
Where to Go
My two weeks were spent mainly in the southwestern area of Nicaragua, with the exception of the four nights I spent on Little Corn Island.
Little Corn Island
Little Corn Island isPprhaps one of my favorite islands I’ve ever had the fortune of spending time on. It definitely rivaled my previous favorites of Zanzibar, Fernando de Noronha, and Koh Tao, albeit the only similarities being that they are all islands.
The only way to get there is via flight (unless you take overland busses through the unchartered Central Nicaragua and hop aboard a freighter ship-a total journey that could take several days). The island is very small, only about 1.5 square miles! Cars and motor vehicles are not allowed, so the only transportation options are bicycle or on foot. The community is very small and tight-knit, and there are very few tourists (at least during the low season). Little Corn Island helped me to appreciate what island life should be like.
A city located in Western Nicaragua, only a few miles away from the coast. Leon is the second largest city in Nicaragua, after Managua, the capital. Leon boast stunning colonial architecture, a vibrant student population due to the Autonomous University of Nicaragua, and is a launching point for exploring some of Nicaragua’s more famous volcanoes, and the infamous volcano boarding!
San Juan del Sur
San Juan del Sur is known as the surfer’s paradise of Nicaragua. It is a sleepy town with brightly decorated buildings. It is also the host of the famous “Sunday Funday,” a huge multi-hostel party held every Sunday. I chose to time my visit to avoid this, as with only two weeks to see this beautiful country, I did not want to waste it drinking cheap alcohol with hordes of other backpackers.
The beaches here are still worth a visit, and San Juan del Sur also has the Cristo de la Misericordia, a mini version of the one I saw in Rio back in 2014.
Another island present in Lake Managua. Formed by two volcanoes, this island was much different than Little Corn. Covered in lush jungle, it truly was an interesting place, full of vibrant flora and fauna. There are archaeological artifacts suggesting that this island was inhabited as early as 2000 BC! Because of the vast jungle, don’t expect to live a life of luxury when visiting Ometepe, unless you shell out serious cash.
I originally did not plan to spend any time in Granada, but found myself with an extra day to spare at the end of the trip. Granada is littered with cobblestone streets and is a beautiful little city. It is also a launching point for the beautiful Laguno de Apoyo and Volcano Masaya, an active volcano where you can peek into the lava gurgling below in the crater!
I’ve heard of other beautiful parts of Nicaragua, including the coffee plantations and highlands of Esteli, and other beaches further north along the Western coast, including Playa Gigante. If I have the chance to go back to Nicaragua, I will be sure to check those places out as well!
So, what are you waiting for? Book your ticket to Nicaragua now!