It pains me to admit that before moving to Central America I hadn’t given much thought to Nicaragua. I might have seen a few travel pictures on Instagram and heard about how dangerous it was somewhere down the line, but beyond that, it was a country I felt neutral towards, never dreaming I’d one day fall prey to her charms.
My acquaintance was made via the expat community, because as border country to Costa Rica, Nicaragua is a popular destination for visa runs. Ask around and you’re bound to hear stories regaling Sunday Funday, (the infamous weekly hostel party celebrated in San Juan Del Sur), ramblings of the beautiful city of Granada, and a lot about how hot it is.
Prior to our visit, I’d also heard I’d probably contract Dengue via a rogue mosquito, be mobbed by street gangs, and punched in the face while they stole my camera. The term “endless revolution” was even thrown around. Great, looking forward to it.
Maybe its happened to you, too. You form a vision of a place based on things you’ve heard on the news, from other people, or accept a general cliché. I’m used to having a different opinion (surely I can’t be the only one who thought Gigli wasn’t that bad?) but in regards to Nicaragua I didn’t expect to feel so mislead. And when I asked the locals what was up with the less than favorable (mostly inaccurate) reputation they said, “Shhhh, let’s keep it that way. It keeps it affordable and enjoyable.” Well, sorry locals, it’s just too good not to share. So here’s my scoop, based on our nine days of experience, whatever that’s worth.
Nicaragua is cheap. Cheap relative to Costa Rica at least. Fresh mojito’s for $1.50 USD, fresh fruit smoothies for $2. Entire (huge) meals for two with adult beverages for $15. Beautiful handmade leather shoes for $12. Gorgeous crocheted hammocks to rival those at Anthropologie for 1/4 the cost. Get the picture?
It’s hot. ‘Nuff said.
Use traveler common sense and it’s a lot less dangerous than you’ve heard. There was no “endless revolution” in sight. I used my camera and we whipped out our phones to GPS our way around. We didn’t get pick pocketed or punched in the face. I’m not saying you shouldn’t use caution, it is a country of poverty and being such, petty theft can be an issue, but please don’t avoid it because of what you might heard from someone who’s never even been there.
It’s clean. You’ll see tenants sweeping and washing sidewalks daily. In Granada, rarely did we see litter. And where we stayed in Ometepe, even the dirt yard was raked daily.
It’s friendly. Locals smile and wave. They’re helpful if you need it. And though “Pura Vida” is supposedly Costa Rica’s thing, I felt the vibe here, too.
Less mosquitoes than expected. Yes, they exist. But coming from the jungle in Puerto Viejo, I was really excited about the handful of bites I received during our entire stay compared to my two-per-day average at home.
The street children will break your heart. Whether it’s an act or not, the fact that they need that hustle to survive is hard for this new mom to stomach.
It is a beautiful country. The scenery, the volcano views, the colors of Granada, …prepare your eyes for a feast.
As far as vacations go, Nicaragua can be as high or low as you want. From hostels and street food to high-end hotels and fine dining, there’s a little bit for every budget.
For our time in Nicaragua, we opted for two adventures; Ometepe, a volcano island, and Granada, the Colonial city by the lake. Below is our photo journey of Granada and destination guide to some of our favorite discoveries.
Where to Stay
There are tons of listings starting at $20 per night! With this option, on the less expensive end you’re likely to get a more of immersed stay (think: no air conditioning and cold showers) but having a local’s expertise is invaluable. On the high-end, you could have a large, modern home to yourself and spend less for a full week than you would for 3 nights at a hotel.
Close to the action as it sits on La Calzada. The courtyard garden is reason enough to stay here. Rates begin at $65 per night.
Mansion de Chocolate
We didn’t stay here but spent a lot of time drinking chocolate concoctions, escaping the heat in the cool and comfy main floor lobby, and spent a lot of time at the pool (which non-guests can utilize for $5 USD per day). There’s also a spa, Spanish classes, and an all you can eat breakfast buffet for the taking. Rates start at $89 per night.
The Tribal Hotel
A beautiful, unique gem and if I could just move in, I would. $125 per night.
Where to Eat
Our favorite. Not only is the food delicious, the scenery is pretty, too. Excellent vegetarian options.
Kathy’s Waffle House
Think IHOP but local style. And array of breakfast items sure to please your tummy. Sit outside and enjoy a view of the Convento San Francisco. And say yes to the Pecan Waffle.
Anywhere on La Calzada, the busy strip of restaurants, stores, etc. All of the evening action happens here, and if you’re up for dining outdoors prepare for a show. (More details below.) Though we had a few favorite dining spots, servers will wave menu’s and shout specials as walk past so it’s probably easiest to go with your whatever your tummy tells you in the moment. If you really want some direction though, start with Tercer Ojo for a nice atmosphere just outside of the bustle. It’s a nice way to ease in if you need a moment to adjust.
Dinner dining on La Calzada is quite the experience. Street acts from drummers to dancers, children selling flowers woven from leaves and probably begging for your food, cigarettes and candy floating by on baskets. You won’t be able to hear your dinner mates over the din. It can be crowded, confusing (where should we EAT?!), and overwhelming if you aren’t prepared. A relaxing fine dining experience this is not, but it is an experience and everyone should do it once. Weekends are the busiest.
Where to Drink
Ask for the Passionate Russian (which may or may not be on the menu). It’s a whiskey and passion-fruit concoction inspired by none other than my very own passionate Russian. It’s also another great spot for vegetarian options.
Reilly’s Irish Pub
The coldest beer and nicest bartenders. What more could you ask for in a bar?
What to See and Do
Take in the view from Iglesia de La Merced
A $1 fee will get you access to the bell tower, via a steep and skinny stairwell, and give you the best views of the city. Don’t forget your camera. (Note: children are not allowed in the tower.)
Catedral de Granada
You couldn’t miss it if you tried. Visible from all over town, this beautiful yellow church is the most recognizable feature of the city.
Swim in Laguna de Apoyo
There is no in-town lake access for swimming so this is your chance to cool down, in an imploded volcano to boot! You’ll have to arrange a shuttle or taxi to get there and make sure to secure return transportation, too, as taxi’s aren’t as plentiful in the area. You also need to choose an access point, also known as a place to hang for the day. Around $5-7 USD per person, these will include chairs, bathrooms, restaurant/bar service, shady hammocks for resting, and possibly inner-tubes and paddle boards. There are several spots from which to enjoy la Laguna. Our pick was Paradiso Hostel, but The Monkey Hut is another popular option. The water is warm, soft, and refreshing. Plan to spend a good portion of the day there; 10am to 4pm is perfect.
Tour La Isletas
When a volcano erupted years ago it threw debris into Lake Granada creating 365 islands. Varying in size, today they host local homes, mansions, and everything in between. Viewed by boat, you’ll also get a great taste of nature, too.
Take a Carriage Ride
A good first day activity as a quick intro around the city before exploring by foot. You’ll appreciate the breeze!
Grab a bag of fresh cashews, rest on a bench, and people watch.
Centro Cultural Convento San Francisco
A beautiful exterior with a museum interior.
Where to Shop
Soy Nica for gorgeous handbags and accessories.
Street vendors for jewelry, small items, and more. I was *thisclose* to commissioning a custom leather bag from a street artisan but let it go once I remembered how the humidity back home in Puerto Viejo would ruin it. Point is, keep your options and ideas open – there are some talented folks out there.
The local markets. A small strip of stalls can be shopped right in Central Park near the Cathedral. Here you’ll find another batch of small souvenirs, as well as tourist t-shirts, a few hammocks, and woven bags. A few blocks away you’ll find the real market, more for locals than tourism. From flip flops to food, it’s a little bit of everything. I actually had to bow out of this one after a few minutes in. The combination of raw meat and heat did not my vegetarian stomach like. No judgement, just be prepared for a trip. Might want to read this first and don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Café de las Sonrisas for a beautiful (even custom) hammock handmade by disabled Nicaraguan’s.
- Food is generally safe and we enjoyed many a meal with no issues whatsoever but Alex did end up with food poisoning. In retrospect, we knew that restaurant was a bad idea as soon as we sat down. If something feels off, it probably is.
- Sometimes it can seem like everyone is selling something or asking for money. A polite but firm “No, gracias” is usually all it takes. Please, please don’t be rude. I’ve seen it and it’s sickening. We’re all human.
- There are high chairs in Granada! Not everywhere, and you may have to ask for it, but more plentiful than what is available in Costa Rica.
- Gringo pricing is real. Taxi’s were the biggest culprit for us. Unfortunately, if your Spanish isn’t great it’s hard to do much about it and respectfully negotiating may or may not work. Good luck!
- Speaking of Taxi’s, as in Costa Rica, it’s common for a passenger to sit in the front. Also, don’t be surprised if you stop to pick up multiple passengers along the way. Hey, it’s efficient!
- You don’t need to exchange money right away. Most businesses will accept US dollars and give you change in cordobas with no exchange rate.
Hopefully I’ve represented Granada well and opened your eyes to Nicaragua. If I missed anything you’re curious about hit me up in the comments below. And if you’ve been, please share a link to your post below, I’d love to check out your experience!
Can’t get enough of Granada, shop my Granada inspired bracelet!13