The Budget Backpacker's Guide to Nicaragua: 14 Day Itinerary
Nicaragua is a wonderful place to visit, with tons of things on offer and most of them available to even the most budgeted traveller. Having lived in Nicaragua for two years, I feel especially able to bring you an itinerary that highlights the sights and the very best of Nicaragua, including a few items that the typical tourist may not be aware of. Two to three weeks would be ideal, but you can cut or add as required for your length of stay!
I've classified this as a budget backpacker's guide to Nicaragua because it assumes the traveller will take buses or taxis when necessary (as opposed to renting a vehicle), all of the hotel suggestions are under $50 a night (most much less), and the restaurant and activity suggestions are largely on the low or mid-range end.
You'll necessarily arrive to the capital city of Managua if you're flying in. Don't stick around here unless you arrive late at night. There's nothing worth seeing and it's pricier than almost anywhere else in the country. Head straight to your next location if possible.
If you do need to spend a night in Managua, consider Hostal Monte Cristo, a decent option close to the airport.
Day 1 Managua to Jinotega
Hop a bus and head straight up into the fresher climes of Nicaragua's biggest coffee producing department. Not only will the slightly cooler climate help you adjust to the heat of the country, but you'll be visiting a beautiful piece of Nicaragua that most tourists miss completely.
Buses depart to Jinotega about every hour (5am to 5pm) from Mayoreo station - conveniently located very close to the airport. Pay no more than 60 cordobas per person for the taxi from the airport.
The bus ride will cost 81 cordobas (this may sneak up incrementally over time) and the ride is about 3 hours. Try to get an expreso to avoid the extra half hour of swinging through Matagalpa first.
Vendors enter the bus along the way selling water and snacks - but there won't be a bathroom break!
Wander around the city, check out the market, grab a coffee (and free wifi!) at Soppexcca just a few blocks west of the market, and head to Jinocuba for a beer and (often) some chill live music. Be sure to stop in front of the very colourful casino for some awesome selfie ops.
Day 2 Jinotega to Matagalpa (via Selva Negra and Cascada Blanca)
Wake up early like the locals and climb up to the cross, La Peña de la Cruz. It's a pretty steep walk up something like 1,000 stairs and an excellent start to the morning. In addition to the exercise, you're likely to be rewarded with great views of the valley just as the sun starts to burn off the morning fog.
Head back to your hotel, grab a quick shower and change of clothes, then head out with coffee in hand and make a stop at Rosquillas El Arbolito and grab a bag of each kind of their delicious offerings to enjoy with your coffee.
You'll have passed the bus station on your way here, so walk backwards a few blocks and hop a bus to Matagalpa. Ask the helper at the front of the bus to let you off at Selva Negra, about 30 minutes up the winding (and astonishingly beautiful) road.
Here you can walk around the lake, take a short hike up to the chapel, and even dine (though the food is pricey, tbh), or opt for a coffee tour.
When you've had your fill, head back out to the highway and hop the next bus heading towards Matagalpa. Get off at the triangular intersection just as you're arriving and grab a taxi the rest of the way to La Cascada Blanca. If it's the dry season (December to May), you'll want to take a swim. If not, best stick to enjoying the view and the sound of the waterfall crashing into the pool below.
The taxi might cost 50 cords per person or a maximum of 200 cordobas. It's only about 10 minutes up the highway to the entrance of the waterfall and easily visible on your right.
Entrance to the Cascada is 50 cords per person and they do have some basic dining options at a lower price than Selva Negra. You could even opt to stay for the night in basic, but decent, rooms.
Day 3 Matagalpa to León
There's not much to see or do in Matagalpa, though there is another cross hike if you're one for early morning hikes. This one is a touch easier and shorter than the one in Jinotega, but arguably a bit less "safe". Just don't go alone or if you do, leave your valuables behind.
There's also an amazing ice cream shop called (adorably) "Kiss Me". It's located just off the Parque Rubén Darío and boasts flavours such as lavender blueberry, raspberry cheesecake, and rocky road. Believe me when I tell you these are not flavours (nor quality) you'll be finding anywhere else in Nicaragua. Get it while the getting's good.
Take a wander around and head out by early afternoon to Leon. Buses don't run much later than lunch. Ask ahead of time to be sure you won't get stuck.
León should be a must-see if for no other reason that it is the most raw but stunningly beautiful city in the country. Check into Hostel El Albergue or Surfing Turtle (especially if you plan to volcano board) and spend a little time wandering and just enjoying the colonial facades, energy, and history.
If you've got a few hours to kill, consider the exceptionally weird and delightful Museo de Leyendas or the much more posh Centro de Arte which features some pieces from around the world, with a concentration in Latin American art.
León is also a great place to find an exceptional meal and enjoy the nightlife. Consider arriving on a Friday to take advantage of the weekend bustle.
Try a macuá! - a softly sweet and mostly tart rum concoction with lime and guava juice; it's the national drink of Nicaragua!
Day 4 León to Las Peñitas
Head to the famed León Cathedral on the central square. You'll need to buy tickets across the street, and can decide which floors to include. The entire tour is interesting but you're really there for the roof.
By going first thing in the morning you'll have a better shot at getting good photos but it's beautiful any time of day. Look for the surrounding volcanoes! The Cathedral is closed Sundays, open every other day from 8-12 and 2-4.
After a leisurely meal on the square at El Sesteo (under misting water to refresh you), head back to the bus station and skip out to the beach town of Las Peñitas, less than an hour away by bus.
Spend a relaxing night listening to the intense crashing of the waves from Simple Beach Lodge.
Day 5 Beach Day
Chill, relax, swing in a hammock, sip some cocktails and enjoy the Nica life.
Day 6 Las Peñitas to Granada
After a morning frolicking in the surf, head to the colonial city of Granada.
The city is a tourist hotspot, but with good reason. It's the jumping off point for many other activities and it's a photographer's paradise.
After checking in to Hotel con Corazon (beautiful mid-range hotel) or Hostal Mochilas (typical budget place), stroll the calzada (cobblestone street lined with pubs and restos) before heading to Mombacho Cigars late afternoon (Mon-Fri). Take a tour of their colonial house turned cigar factory and all of their operations for just $4. Ask to be taken up to the rooftop for stunning 360° views of the city and nearby Mombacho volcano.
Consider booking a tour for tomorrow's volcano excursion to ensure you have departure times sorted for tomorrow.
Grab an amazing and reasonably priced falafel wrap, or tuck into the equally delicious though somewhat more expensive dinner options, on offer at Pizzaiol- the food and atmosphere will not disappoint.
Granada is home to a dish called VigorC3n - pork and boiled yuca topped with cabbage salad. They sell it cheaply enough on the street, but as with most street food be wary unless you have a strong stomach.
Day 7 Granada and the volcanoes
Head out in the morning to do a hike on Mombacho Volcano and get stunning vistas (assuming the fog and cloud coverage doesn't obscure it) or if you'd rather something simpler, the active Masaya volcano with small museum.
When you get back to Granada, lunch at The Garden Cafe and spend the afternoon by the pool. If your hotel doesn't have one, pay to spend the day at the Mansion de Chocolate's pool. It's immense and beautiful and there's an affordable spa on site as well.
Grab a sunset cocktail on the calzada and watch the hustle and bustle of the day turn into the many melodies of the night time musicians and hawkers.
Day 8 Granada to the Apoyo Lagoon
Before you check out of your hotel in Granada, head out on one of the island boat tours. Or kayak if you prefer something a little more adventurous. Either way, be sure to get taken by the monkey island.
Then head to Masaya Market on your way to the Apoyo Lagoon and grab amazing wares ranging from textiles to hammocks, leather bags and goods, shirts, jewelry, and more.
You can spend the afternoon swimming in the warm waters of an ancient volcano crater lake, kayaking, and sipping delicious drinks. It's an experience you're unlikely to get anywhere else and one well worth your time.
To get to Masaya from Granada it's a super short bus ride up the highway. You can grab a taxi for 20 cordobas per person and ask to get to the "Mercado Artisanal". It's a fort-style building packed full of vendors and a fun place to get some souvenirs.
From there, catch a taxi to the Lagoon (Laguna de Apoyo in Spanish). It shouldn't cost more than $10 as it's only 15 minutes from Masaya.
Day 9 Apoyo Lagoon to Ometepe Island
You'll be happy you stayed the night at the lagoon, as it's magical waking up almost inside a volcano. Trust me. Take it in for a few hours and then head to Masaya's bus station where you can catch a bus to Rivas. In Rivas, grab a pedi-taxi or regular taxi for the few minutes jaunt up to the ferry terminal.
You can either stay in one of the many hostels and hotels lining the main street and the adjoiningB streets in Moyogalpa (where the ferry lets you off), or you can hop a bus or cough up about $20 for a taxi to take you to one of the locations inland.
If you're planning to hike a volcano, I think it makes sense to stay a little more in and at the base of the volcanoes, but you'll also be more removed.
Renting a motorbike would be the ideal situation on Ometepe Island. Then it really doesn't matter where you stay, because you'll be able to zip around the whole island at will.
The ferries don't always leave exactly as scheduled and can fill up - be sure to get there no later than 3pm to ensure you'll make it across to the island before nightfall.
Day 10 Ometepe Island volcano hike
Wake up early and start climbing! It is mandatory to have a guide, regardless of which volcano you decide to hike. Be sure you have arranged one the day before because you'll want a very early morning start.
If you stay at Finca Magdalena, they will arrange the guide to come meet you right on their front step. And it's located at the base of Maderas, so you're already where you need to be when you wake up! Convenient ;-)
The entire day will be the hike, regardless of whether you're doing Maderas or Concepcion. Be warned that both hikes are pretty intense, but Concepcion is considered much harder and is longer as well.
Hiking Maderas, arguably the easier of the two, was one of the hardest physical feats I've ever done(granted, I'm no athlete, so take that for what it's worth). But it was super worth it.
Day 11 Ometepe Island's Ojo de Agua
Having climbed the volcano yesterday, I assure you are going to want to do as little moving as possible today ;-) the Ojo de Agua's mineral waters have become somewhat of an after-volcano ritual for soothing away sore muscles and drinking a beer to your feat.
There are on site snacks and a restaurant, entrance is minimal, and there are some chairs (though not many) set up for relaxing with a book.
Alternately, you can head to Ometepe's main stretch of beach and chill on the slightly rocky sand there. It's argued whether the water there is particularly clean or nice for swimming so...don't say you weren't warned.
Order a Plato Surtido for a giant plate of typical foods to share (expect lots of meat) or just try the Tostones Con Queso - my personal fave Nicaraguan dish!
Day 12 Ometepe Island to San Juan del Sur
After a day of relaxation, you'll want to head to Nicaragua's surf mecca - San Juan del Sur. It's a crazy little beach town lined with pubs up and down a stretch of beautiful beach.
San Juan has many many hostels to choose from and during high season the beachfront ones do tend to book up. Expect to pay too much for subpar rooms, or sacrifice the view and move back from the beach a few blocks.
Take the ferry from Moyogalpa to Rivas, then hop a bus to San Juan del Sur. There will be many and it's not more than an hour away.
Day 13 San Juan del Sur (or nearby beach)
Grab a cheap and delicious breakfast from a blink-and-miss-it spot called the Dale Pues and eat at the beach.
If you've decided you want a change of scenery, all of the surf shops have shuttles going to nearby beaches that leave in the morning and return in the afternoon. You can grab a spot even if you don't want to surf.
They don't charge a lot for the lift.
Day 14 San Juan del Sur to Managua
There are plenty of buses and even shuttles from San Juan del Sur to Managua. Be sure to take one that lets you off at Mayoreo so you're back in the general vicinity of the airport.
Start planning immediately for how to come back as soon as possible! ;-)
Tips for Travelling Nicaragua on a backpacker's budget
Consider going in low/rainy season (May to October) for cheaper hotel prices. Pack an umbrella or rain coat and you'll be fine. It doesn't rain constantly, though your beach days might have to be a bit more negotiable.
The bus stations are usually located inside markets and you can find cheap fruits and veggies in these markets. Grab a few bananas, an avocado, some tomatoes, and you might be able to get away with not having to eat at a restaurant more than once a day. A banana costs 1-2 cordobas and a pound of tomatoes costs 20 cordobas. Pretty hard to beat those prices.
Haggle over souvenir prices. These are always set high and can always be discounted. But be fair, don't go ridiculously low (people are there to make a living, too!). Also, the more you buy from one vendor, the better discount they will generally give you, so look for one that has a few of the items you're eyeing.
Determine taxi prices before getting into the car. Getting to and from the airport IS a little bit pricey, but otherwise you should never pay more than $2 per person per 5 minutes in a taxi (as a general rule) in Managua. Many of the smaller towns even have set rates of between 10-20 cordobas pp per ride and do not need to be negotiated. Ask someone nearby if you are unsure.
Nicaraguans are pretty friendly when approached, but not exuberantly so. They will sometimes shy away from helping you based on either your level of Spanish (it may prove too difficult for some Nicas to understood you) or just straight up timidity.
Be wary of your personal belongings and don't wander around with excess amounts of cash. Waving your cell phone around might get it nabbed. Nicaragua is not unsafe, but it is a poor country and opportunity theft is common.
I could go on and on and debated a three week itinerary. There are so many wonderful things to see and do in this unique and beautiful country. Try not to miss out on the lakes and volcanoes - they are Nicaragua's calling card and with good reason.