When you think of great travel destinations in Central America, Nicaragua may not be the first place that pops into your mind but perhaps it should. This small country has as much to offer as neighbor Costa Rica but at a fraction of the price and with considerably fewer tourists. There are Caribbean beach towns, breathtaking lagoons, and volcanoes everywhere you look. Combine this with charming colonial cities and an incredibly friendly population, you have all the makings of an incredible vacation.
Current COVID-19 Restrictions
Nicaragua is currently open for tourism. You need to have a negative PCR test taking within 72 hours of entry. There is only one place to get tested for COVID-19 in Nicaragua and that is in Managua. PCR tests cost $150. There are no options for antigen tests at this time. This is problematic if you are trying to head north into Honduras. However, it shouldn't have an impact on you if you are flying from Managua to another country.
The CDC has recently announced that at-home testing kits can now be used to enter the US. Although it is too early to know if these will be accepted in foreign countries to actually board the plane, it does show that COVID-19 testing could get much easier in the future.
Masks are not widely worn in many places and the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases is low. Whether that is an accurate number or it is simply due to a lack of testing is questionable so it is best to simply do what you feel comfortable with.
How to Get There
Flights are prohibitively expensive due to COVID-19 so it is best to fly into San Jose or Liberia in Costa Rica and then do the border crossing between the two countries. When entering Nicaragua, you will have to pay a $13 entry tax that must be paid in cash. There are no ATMs at the border so make sure that you come prepared to pay both the entry tax and onward transport into Nicaragua. A taxi to San Juan del Sur should cost $20-25. Alternatively, you can take a local bus to Rivas and then catch another bus either to Granada, San Juan del Sur, or San Jorge (where the ferry to Ometepe leaves from) from there.
Transport in Nicaragua is pretty straightforward and you can either travel by taxi or by "chicken bus". Chicken buses are basically old American school buses that are now being used for public transport. Some are still the iconic bright yellow from their days shuttling children back to school while others are multi-colored. It is generally very inexpensive to travel by bus and you should budget roughly $1 for every hour you travel.
Top Places to Visit in Nicaragua
San Juan del Sur
Coming from Costa Rica, San Juan del Sur is the first must-see place. This cute little beach town is full of hostels, bars, restaurants, and shops. There is a large expat population living nearby and many people speak English. Although the beach itself isn't stunning, you can get a transfer to nearby Playa Maderas. With just a few restaurants that offer rustic accommodation, Playa Maderas feels very secluded. It is a great place to spend a few hours sipping beer on the beach. While you are in San Juan, make sure to hike up to the Jesus statue on the hill above the city. The views are phenomenal.
Isla de Ometepe
This incredible island in Lake Nicaragua is the highlight of many people's trip to Nicaragua. The island is in the shape of an 8 with two large volcanoes on either side. You can see at least one of the volcanoes from most places on the island. The island is very large so the best way to explore it is by motorbike or scooter which can be easily rented. Top attractions include Playa Mangos, Punta Jesus Maria, Charco Verde Reserve, San Ramon waterfall, and Ojo de Agua.
Many tourists stay in Balgue and there is a number of hostels and restaurants there. Another great option is Moyogalpa. It is the most important town on the island with a cute main street which ends at the edge of the lake. This is also where the ferry from San Jorge docks.
This brightly painted colonial city is a great place to base yourself for day trips. Laguna de Apoyo is a stunning lake formed by the explosion of a volcano where you can swim and kayak while Volcano Masaya is an active volcano where you can walk around the crater. One of the best ways to see Volcano Masaya is on a sunset tour where you have the chance to walk along the nearby hiking trails and see the burning lava in the crater come to life as the sky darkens. Both Laguna Apoyo and Volcano Masaya offer a great opportunity to see Nicaragua's spectacular natural attractions.
Another charming colonial city, Leon is the first major town that you reach when coming from Honduras. Leon is much bigger than Granada and feels much less touristy. The main square is full of families in the evening and is a great place to people watch.
A trip to Leon also offers an incredibly unique way to experience nature called volcano boarding. This is not for the faint of heart as they claim speeds can reach up to 100k per hour. The volcano boarding trips leave from Central Leon and take around 5-6 hours in total. The hike up the volcano takes around 45 minutes and at the top, you will have plenty of time to take photos of the amazing view. The trip down can be as fast or as slow as you want it.
When normal flight operations resume, Managua is the main point of arrival for many visitors. An earthquake destroyed the city in 1972 leaving a broken version of Managua. However, the city has recently gone through a makeover and there has been a major investment in infrastructure. While it may not have the same colonial charm as nearby Granada, it is definitely worth visiting for a day or two.
What to Pack for a Trip to Nicaragua
Nicaragua is a laid-back, hot country so loose-fitting shorts, tank tops, sundresses, and sandals are your best bet here. Locals will be wearing jeans and T-shirts and somehow, miraculously, not be sweaty. Make sure to bring plenty of sunblock, your bathing suit, and sunglasses. If you want to hike any of the volcanoes, it is also a good idea to bring hiking shoes, especially if it is the rainy season as the paths can get very muddy.
Travel as lightly as possible, especially if you are planning on taking chicken buses as they have very little space for luggage. A backpack that you can comfortably carry is your best option.