Nicaragua was my first destination in Central America (other than a quick hop over the US-Mexico border in my early 20s). I fell in love. Not only was Nicaragua extremely affordable, the people were enchanting and friendly, and the entire country had a very relaxed and comfortable feel. Nicaragua has something to offer everyone: history, nature, adventure, and beaches.
León, the country’s second largest city and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, doesn’t get a lot of publicity. I am so glad I went. León was founded in 1524 by the Spanish and is one of two historic capitols of the country. It’s considered the intellectual center of the country and is also a revolutionary town with an electric vibe. Justifiably famous as a city of dozens of churches, another must-do stop is the Museum of Revolution. It has the feel of a Nicaraguan VFW where revolutionary veterans hang out in the courtyard talking and sharing stories. For a nominal entrance fee a revolutionary veteran will take you around the museum and share their personal insights. My guide didn’t speak English and my Spanish wasn’t up to the job, but no translator was really necessary. His passion and energy were contagious and with a few recognizable words, pictures and hand gestures it was one of my favorite stops in my two week trip to Central America.
Granada is a great place to stay for a couple of days and take day trips. It is amazing how different Granada feels from Leon. I can’t do it justice in words, you just have to go and see for yourself. Granada is more beautiful and more touristy than Leon and is a great city to walk, explore museums, and lounge in cafes. You can spend a day on Lake Nicaragua watching the wildlife, take a night tour of Volcano Masaya (I recommend a tour rather than on your own so you can see the lava tunnels), and visit the markets in Masaya.If you speak Spanish, or want to speak Spanish, think of Nicaragua as a place to combine your vacation with Spanish immersion lessons. There are endless opportunities to practice and expand your vocabulary, and it will significantly enhance your experience.
Like all my travels, I wish there had been enough time and money to do more on my first trip to Nicaragua. I have bad knees, so I unfortunately I couldn’t go volcano surfing. (Yes, it’s a real thing!) Also, I didn’t have time to get to the East Coast and see the Bluefields, or to explore the jungles and villages in the North. But that’s okay, it means I already have a starting place for next time. Next time I think I’ll fly into Managua and immediately catch an early morning domestic flight east to see Caribbean Coast, then head North to explore the highlands on my way to El Salvador and Honduras.
Travel Tips: I visited the country in August and never stopped sweating. I later discovered towards the end of our trip that we were there during the “cool season”, it gets even warmer in December! After Albania, Nicaragua is probably the most affordable country I have visited. If you plan to travel light, use local transportation to get around. For the traveler with more stuff, more caution, or more resources there are dozens of companies that provide transfers from one city to another, and to the borders of neighboring countries. I don’t recommend renting a car in Nicaragua and I would stay away from cabs. If you are looking for a hotel in either city – start with Hotel Flor De Sarta and Miss Margrit’s Guest House. I stayed at both and was immensely pleased. They are both small boutique hotels right in the city with beautiful courtyards, friendly staff and wonderful breakfasts. At Miss Margrit’s try the lime pancakes, we couldn’t get enough and ate more than our fair share.
Books (TV/Movie): I read Nicaragua: Living in the Shadow of the Eagle by Thomas Walker while there. I highly recommend it. The Country Under My Skin: A Memoir of Love and War by Gioconda Belli also gets good ratings. The movie Mosquito Coast with Harrison Ford takes place in Eastern Nicaragua. You may also want to look up or read a bit about William Walker before you go. I had never heard of him before my trip, but he is an infamous American who was President of Nicaragua for a short time and tried to take control of most of Central America before he was executed in Honduras in 1860. Who knew?