5 Off-The-Beaten-Path Additions for Your Nicaragua Itinerary
Nicaragua is slowly transforming from a little-known country in the center of Central America to a full-blown tourist destination. Indeed Nicaragua offers a little of everything: surfing, tropical islands, volcanoes, rainforests and beaches for a fraction of the price of its popular neighbour, Costa Rica. With new and sudden fame, tourism has yet to expand its reach to lesser known parts of the country. The typical tourist itinerary usually consist of the following: Volcano boarding on Serro Negro, surfing in San Juan del Sur, hanging out on Ometepe and a weekend partying and shopping in Granada and Masaya. After a year of living in Nicaragua, I have some suggestions to make for a cheaper, more authentic and more worthwhile visit to this beautiful and diverse place.
1. Ditch San Juan del Sur
Seriously. Unless you are 21, single, enjoy hanging out with drunk people from your own country and want to pay ridiculous prices to hang out on a semi-polluted beach and eat European food – don’t bother going here. For the surfers, better breaks, prettier sunsets and a more relaxed vibe can be found at Playa Gigante, Playa Hermosa or further up north and my personal favorite: Popoyo.
2. Switch La Flor for Chacocente
For those of you going to watch turtles lay eggs or hatch (both of which are a mind-boggling, life-changing experiences well worth doing) the obvious stop is Nicaragua’s largest turtle nesting site in the national park “La Flor,” located 10km or so from San Juan del Sur. At $40 a head to stand on a beach with hoards of other tourists, it is quite expensive. Not to mention that the level of environmental awareness and the treatment of turtles is shockingly low.
A much better option is Nicaragua’s second largest turtle nesting site, Chacocente, which is still relatively unknown. There are only two groups that offer tours in Chacocente, one of which is the research center located in the park itself. Both work closely with turtle conservation societies, the local communities and on top of it all, are also significantly cheaper.
3. Climb a Volcano
No, volcano boarding down Serro Negro doesn’t count, nor does taking the bus up to the top of Mombacho (although both are very impressive and well worth doing). When I say climb a volcano, I mean spend 10 sweaty, miserable, terrifying hours to scramble to the top of an active volcano and peer over the edge into the fumes and lava below. It is well worth the hike, the tears and the $20. The three best volcanoes to hike are Conceptión on Ometepe Island, San Cristobal near Leon, or Momotombo near Managua (all are still very active and guides are highly recommended). Good second choices are the dormant volcanoes Madera on Ometepe Island, or Cosiguina, north of Chinandega.
4. Swap cities for the unknown north
Don’t get me wrong, Granada, Leon and Masaya are all beautiful cities and well worth visiting. For a day. Maybe two. Any more than that and you are just wasting time and money when you could be heading to the north: the true cultural heartland of Nicaragua. Canyons, rain forests, coffee plantations, cowboys and mountains–the undiscovered north offers a culturally and climatically unique side to Nicaragua.
Coffee is produced around the economically important city of Matagalpa, which is a great starting point for exploring the coffee plantations, forests, and towns such as Jinotega to the north of the city. Esteli was the heart of the Sandinista revolution and is also an important agricultural center. For anyone interested in organic farms, cowboys, waterfalls and mountains, this is a great place to start. Somoto and Ocotal are both small but charming cities close to the border with Honduras. A beautiful canyon turns into the Rio San Coco 17 km north of Somoto, which is at its wildest and best from October to January. Here, the nights are cool, the people are friendly and the coffee is always drunk with rosquillas, internationally renowned corn-based biscuits that, like champagne, aren’t really rosquillas if they are not from Somoto.
5. Eat Nacatamal
Once you know the real price of food in Nicaragua, the prices in restaurants and hostels often seem quite absurd–especially when it is easy to buy delicious, fresh food right out of strangers’ houses. On any given weekend, in any given side street you will see signs on people’s houses that say, “hay Nacatamal.” Nacatamals are steamed corn mass with a delicious pork and vegetable filling. Because of the huge time investment, people will often make large amounts and sell the rest straight out of their house. These giant tamales never cost more than 30 cordobas, making it a delicious and filling meal for only $1.
Wherever there is a sign just yell through the window (Buenos dias! Hay Nacatamal?) until somebody comes and places your order. In this manner people also sell a variety of other things, including chocobananos (chocolate-dipped frozen bananas) and chupetas (frozen juice and milkshakes in small plastic bags) for 2 cordobas. How could you say no?