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Travel Itinerary: Nicaragua for Solo Travelers

Granada, Nicaragua

Granada, Nicaragua

Today, I’m pleased to introduce you to Michael Hodson on Go, See, Write, an attorney who took off on his birthday in December of 2008 to circumnavigate the globe without ever getting on an airplane. After 16 months, 6 continents and 44 countries, he made it back home. Right now, he’s in Colombia, writing about it all and he has been kind enough to share information on Nicaragua. You can follow him on Twitter where he’s known as @mobilelawyer.

Nicaragua is one of my favorite countries in Latin America. Although the typical preconceived notions back in the States of this small Central American country remain wedded to the violence and guerrilla warfare of the Sandinista revolution and the Contra wars of the 1980s, my experiences there have been of some of the warmest and friendliest people on the planet – and a country with plenty of sights worthy of a visit.

Where to arrive (and leave).
Managua is the capital and if you are flying into the country, it is going to be the place you touch down. The city is one of 1.8 million people and it was almost completely destroyed by an earthquake in 1972. I wish I had something good to say about it, but it is the only place in Nicaragua that I would recommend avoiding. Added to its well-deserved reputation for violence is the fact that it is a fairly ugly metropolis that has never really recovered from the earthquake, so my advice would be to land and leave.

The Cities of Nicaragua
Almost all of the population of Nicaragua is concentrated within 30 or 40 miles of the Pacific Ocean and in both of my extended visits I spent all my time on that side, although I have heard that the laid-back Caribbean lifestyle is alive and well in Bluefield and the Corn Islands, on the other side of the country.

The two major cities in Nicaragua, aside from Managua, are Leon to the northwest of the capital and Granada just a couple hours to the southeast. Leon was at the heart of the Sandinista revolution and maintains a political tilt to the left, while Granada was, and to some extent remains, the center of the more conservative side of politics in Nicaragua. Leon is a university town and maintains some of the vitality that young population brings. It is less touristy than Granada. Both have very walkable city centers, though Leon has the distinction of the largest church in all of Central America.

Granada is one of the oldest cities in Central America, founded in 1524, and is better preserved and more visually stunning than Leon. It sits on the northern side of Lake Nicaragua, close to Laguna de Apoyo, which is a deep water volcanic lake worth a visit. Both Leon and Granada should be visited, but if you have time to only do one, I suggest Granada. It is one of those cities that begs for you to pull your camera out over and over again. The colors are wonderful and it is simple to wander around the central part of town and take in the ambience of the sidewalk cafes, parks, colonial architecture and impressive Catholic churches. It is also closer to some other places that you should try to hit while you are there, namely Ometepe and San Juan del Sur.

sunset at San Juan del Sur.

Sunset at San Juan del Sur.

Nicaragua – naturally.
In the center of Lake Nicaragua (the largest lake in Central America and the 19th largest in the world) lie twin volcanoes, joined together as one island, Ometepe, well worthy of a visit. You can get there by a boat ride of about 6 hours from Granada that runs twice a week or take a bus down to the town of Rivas and catch one of the multiple daily ferries from there. Once there, both volcanoes are hikeable and the scenery is spectacular.

About thirty or forty miles down the road to the Pacific from Rivas, down perhaps the worst road you may ever traverse in your lifetime, lies the sleepy little beach village of San Juan del Sur. San Juan is a sort of expat haven; you will run into scores of Canadians and Americans there, including some true eccentrics worthy of a Graham Greene short story.

Everyone in town is waiting for the road to be properly sealed and paved to open this place to the world and lead to the tourist revolution that you will hear about more than a few times. Given the state of the Nicaraguan government and the lack of revenue this poor country manages to bring in – and also given that the World Bank gave millions to one of the previous governments to build the road, only to see all of it stolen by the President at the time – I don´t think there is much risk that San Juan del Sur will to turn into Cancun anytime in the near future, but get there in the meantime to enjoy the vibe of a place that I love. And not any small thing, you will also be granted with some of the best sunsets you will see anywhere on the planet.

Put Nicaragua on your bucket list.
In short, Nicaragua is a place that should be on most everyone´s bucket list. Like all of Central America, you need to be cautious at all times. Don´t leave items unattended. Don´t walk around towns with your fancy DSLR dangling from your neck (keep it in a bag or backpack and pull it out just to use).

Cheap hostels are easy to find in any of these cities and towns and there are some fairly nice hotels available also, including a nice resort or two in tiny San Juan. Ground transportation is a bit rough; the roads aren´t the best and the buses are also not the finest in Latin America, but I’ve never heard of any safety issues on the buses. Spanish language schools are plentiful and if I can only give you one piece of advice, find a way to talk to some of the locals. I bet you too will be charmed by this undiscovered gem in Latin America.

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  • Isabella

    I highly recommend Leon, Esteli and Matagalpa, in Leon we stayed at a new B&B la gordita, the lady at the place knew of spots that few tourists get to go see, if you like things off the beaten path, mariacchis and or the local fishermen place, she will get you there. She also arranged for us to go to a place high up in the mountains of Esteli; la estanzuela and from there we travelled to Matagalpa. the place is small so get in before everyone else discovers the place! http://www.posadalagordita.com

  • Kevin Hawley

    Hi Jessiev, I almost forgot. I have a disability also and have worked with peers who have similar disabilties as a counselor. Depending on your diagnosis, I may be able to offer some tips and / or guidance. Feel free to contact me in confidence at ksh.hawley@yahoo.com

  • Kevin Hawley

    This was great. I have not been able to find reliable or really much info. at all. This article and the comments following have given me all I need to lay the groundwork for my trip.
    And now I know where to find the ex-pats. I only casually was looking as I find they can be a wealth of info.
    But, I do have to add, there is a “Variety” of ex-pats. I used two good ex-pat Forums, one in the Philippines & one in Costa Rica via their Forums.
    Thanks for leaving that link Michaedl, I will give it a read.

  • anna toon

    I enjoyed Leon, Matagalpa and Granada – lastly San Juan Del Sur. Nicaragua is a country of Passion, Poetry, Poverty and most obviously, Politics. Their history is fascinating. I gravitated to the North – Miraflor, Matagalpa, Jinetego, etc. I didn’t really enjoy San Juan Del Sur – still found it too busy for my liking, though I did meet some interesting “cruisers” – sailors who actually live at sea with their families, but come ashore for periods of weeks/months to earn $ for further travels. SJDS has an attractive port with cheap rates for these “cruisers” to do boat maintenance, get their land “fixes” hang their shingles etc.
    Nicaragua – my most favourite place to repeatedly travel to….

  • http://www.ordinarytraveler.com Christy – Ordinary Traveler

    Great! Thanks for all the advice, everyone!

  • http://www.lengthytravel.com/ Jeff

    Christy, I actually learned to surf in SJDS and was there 3 weeks so my level is still relatively basic, though I have gotten to the point where I prefer a smaller board (6’4″ typically). If conditions are good, Remanso is fine for intermediate, but you sometimes have to wait a while for the good waves. With smaller waves and no swell, its better for beginners or long boarders. Maderas is a bit more of a mixed bag. When conditions aren’t good, it can be a mess and when conditions are good there are usually different spots suitable for different levels.

    There are places to stay at both beaches, but I think the options at Remanso are higher end/higher cost. There is a fairly basic place right where the shuttle drops you at Maderas but I don’t recall the name. My friend stayed at a place she liked which is a 15-20 minute walk from Maderas along the beach (can’t always navigate it when tide is high). I don’t recall the name, but you might be able to Google it. If you go that option, rent your board in SJDS and bring it with you via taxi. Also be sure to buy some groceries and alcohol as there isn’t much to speak of in that place. If you have enough time there, I’d probably stay a night or two in SJDS and surf both beaches one day each and then decide what suits you best and move if you find a place you like.

    Jeff

    P.S. I think I got Remanso and Maderas backwards on my prior comment. I do tend to have a bad memory that way so I can’t swear I haven’t confused which is which!

    P.P.S. Everyone raves about Little Corn Island (not Big Corn) but unfortunately, I didn’t make it there. I hope to in a future trip.

  • http://www.goseewrite.com/ Michael Hodson

    Jeff — great details. I was going to learn to surf there, but learned to scuba dive instead. Really good info on the surf scene.

    Christy — do NOT be afraid that San Juan is too touristy or too much a party place. It is a pretty sleepy village. Party there is pretty limited to a few places and most everything is shut down by midnight at the latest (except a crazy local disco that I got drug off to until 3 a.m. one night on the outskirts of town). If you want to surf Nicaragua, you are going to want to stay there and get taken the beaches like Jeff went into. It is a nice little beach town — give it a try.

  • http://www.ordinarytraveler.com Christy – Ordinary Traveler

    Jeff, Thanks so much for the detailed info! I don’t stay up late and party and that’s what I imagined SJDS to be like. I’m usually in bed by 10, especially after a day of surfing. ;)

    Am I understanding correctly that I would need to stay in SJDS because there are not places to stay near the surf beaches?

    Are you a good surfer? I’m intermediate so I wouldn’t want a slow longboard wave, but I’m not sure if the advanced surf spots would be too heavy for me. I don’t go for barreling overhead waves. I’ve read that Nic gets consistent overhead waves unless you visit in December. Does that sound about right?

    Thanks again! I really appreciate all your helpful info!

  • http://www.marktisdalephotography.com Mark Tisdale

    SJDS was a fun place to ring in the new year, that I can say! Definitely a fun place to enjoy nature, spent a day out on a sailboat and saw sea turtles hatching at night! In the grand scheme of things, though, I’m not sure it felt distinguished from any other beach vacation, which was why I said little about it on my original comment.

    I heard a bit about Leon while in Granada and it piqued my curiosity but I didn’t get to see it for myself. I was talking to a local in San Carlos while waiting on the boat to Solentiname and she said the Corn Islands were extremely beautiful, so there’s another place to add to my wish list in Nicaragua. ;-)

  • http://www.lengthytravel.com/ Jeff

    Christy,

    Here is my take on San Juan del Sur. This place has a beautiful beach to swim and enjoy but if you want to surf you will have to take a shuttle to one of two nearby beaches, Maderas and Remanso. Casa Oro, the most popular hostel in town (though I don’t recommend staying there), offers well-organized shuttles but you can also usually go with whoever you rent a board from. Also, bargain for a discount if you are renting multiple boards and/or multiple days – a really good price would be $7 a day for a board with rash guard but definitely don’t pay more than $10/day. As for the two main beaches to surf (there are others but you have to arrange private transportation), Maderas is generally better for beginners and long boards and Remanso more advanced, but it does depend on the conditions. I used Arena Caliente (the guys running it are nuts, in a good way) and even though I often took the Casa Oro shuttle (more reliable departure times and cheaper), I usually asked the guys at the shop which beach was going to have better conditions for the day.

    Also know that SJDS does have a bit of a party reputation. Mostly people are there to surf during the day and party at night. If you are going to party at night, do be aware that there are some robberies of people coming home late at night – I personally met a couple of different folks who were robbed that way (no violence involved).

  • solotraveler

    Sorry about the word limit – but I’m loving the discussion.

  • http://www.goseewrite.com/ Michael Hodson

    Christy – Pretty much none of Nicaragua is that “touristy.” Sure, you will run into some tourists, especially in San Juan and Granada, but far, far less than in other spots in Central America. What San Juan really is isn´t touristy… it is an expat land. And expats are weird and interesting creatures. Worthy of seeing in their natural environment. Here is one of my old (and very LONG) blogs about the expats in San Juan:

    http://www.goseewrite.com/2008/05/expats-in-nicaragua/

  • http://www.goseewrite.com/ Michael Hodson

    Jeff, I actually did stay in Estelli the last time through. My favorite cigars (Padron) are made in the area. I liked the northern mountain area, as you did. Different than the rest of the country. But Janice had me on a word limit, so I had to cut it ;)

    No offense, Janice! Was honored to get a chance to post on your great site.

    Ayngelina, we’ve actually talked Leon/Granada in person over beers, my favorite way to talk travel. I really did like both. My suggestion on picking Granada, if you can only do one, is primarily a geographic one. It is easier to hit some of the other sites that are close by there, than if you go north to Leon and double back down. But you are right, it is a great city in its own right.

    Jessiev, not sure what your disability is. If you want to email me privately, I can give you whatever tips I can come up with. My email is michaelshodson@yahoo.com

  • http://www.ordinarytraveler.com Christy – Ordinary Traveler

    As I started researching for an upcoming trip to Nicaragua, I noticed there are not too many people writing about or visiting this country. This, of course, makes me want to go even more! I’m trying to combine a surf trip with as much culture as possible. I’ve been told San Juan Del Sur is very touristy, so I was looking to stay somewhere different. Granada sounds interesting, so maybe I will look into that area more. Thanks for the info!

  • http://www.baconismagic.ca ayngelina

    Nicaragua is by far my favorite country in Central America and of the 5+ weeks I spent there 3 of them were in Leon. If you want to understand the history of this country you cannot miss the city that launched the revolution.

  • solotraveler

    Hi Jeff, thanks so much for adding more information to this post. I love when people chime in and share.

  • http://www.lengthytravel.com/ Jeff

    You neglected to mention Estelí and, in particular, the Reserva Natural Miraflor, which is most easily accessed from there. A fantastic place to visit and you can choose the option of staying with local families. There are three distinct climatic zones that can be traversed easily.

    I would also mention that León is a great place from which to make some local volcano climbs, including, if you time it well, a full moon hike. You can also do volcano boarding there. If you go, try to use Quetzaltrekkers, a great nonprofit organization that uses volunteer guides and donates the proceeds to local charity.

  • jessiev

    how very interesting – i’ve not been engaged much in researching nicaragua, it seems really difficult for travelers with disabilities. but you sure make me want to go – do you have any hints for travelers with disabilities?

  • solotraveler

    Hi Mark, thanks so much for contributing and confirming that Grenada is the city to focus on.

  • http://www.marktisdalephotography.com Mark Tisdale

    I didn’t do Nicaragua solo but as part of a Gap Adventure tour. It was nothing like I had imagined. I went for the Costa Rica part of the trip but it was Nicaragua that was the most memorable for me. I agree with the recommendation of Granada. It was one of the places on my trip that I felt like I really wanted to go back and spend more time on my own some day. The people were so awesome. I will never forget this shopkeeper in San Carlos who spoke no English (and my Spanish is pretty much nonexistent) trying to communicate the price to me. He was saying 13 in Spanish and I thought he was telling me 30. He was arguing because I was trying to pay too much! Seriously in my currency it was pennies difference but he wouldn’t accept overpayment and finally whipped out a calculator and punched in the numbers so I would understand. Those are the kind of people I encountered.

About Janice Waugh and Tracey Nesbitt

Screen Shot 2014-07-30 at 8.52.44 PMI'm an author, blogger, speaker and traveler. I became a widow and empty-nester at about the same time. And then, I became Solo Traveler... Here's the full story. >>
Tracey NesbittI’m a writer, editor, food and wine fanatic, and traveler. On my very first trip abroad I learned that solo travel was for me. Here's the full story. >>

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