We were only supposed to be in Central America for around 6 weeks, but we celebrated 6 months of travelling in Nicaragua. If you like adventure sports such as volcano boarding and surfing, hiking, exploring cities and partying like you’ve never partied before then Nicaragua is the place for you.
We found out about Somoto Canyon whilst staying at Lago de Yojoa in Honduras. There was a little notice on the board with details on how to get to Somoto Canyon which is nestled in the mountains of Northern Nicaragua and close to the Honduran border. After a little googling we decided this was a much better option than the huge journey to Leon and we couldn’t believe this was the first time hearing about the canyon.
Somoto Canyon almost feels like a secret that not many people know about yet. Located in the small town of Somoto, the canyon was only discovered in 2004 and became a national monument in 2006. I have a feeling this is going to be a huge tourist destination in Nicaragua in the coming years.
We booked our tour with Namancambre Tours and were the only 2 people who wanted to take the 5 hour long tour. Following a bit of a nightmare journey from Honduras, we ended up missing the last bus which meant we had to stay in Ocotal for the night and take the bus to Somoto first thing in the morning. We arrived too late for the long tour but were able to take the 3.5 hour medium tour instead which for me was perfect.
During the tour you will hike to the midpoint of the canyon and pass through narrow openings with stunning views before trekking and swimming through 2.5km of the canyon. There is one big jump of around 4 meters which I almost chickend out of, but after a few pep talks with myself, I plucked up the courage to take the leap.
The tour costs $20 for the medium tour and $25 for the long tour which includes a free lunch. There is also the option of a short tubing tour which takes 2.5 hours for those who are not as adventurous which is a relaxing trek up the Rio Coco, the longest river in Central America.
Our next destination in Nicaragua was Leon, and I can’t lie, our first impression wasn’t great. We have been spoiled by the beauty of Antigua in Guatemala and were expecting a lot more from this gritty city. The people of Leon don’t go out of their way to make you feel welcome in their hometown, they treat you like they treat everybody else.
We booked 3 nights at Hostel el Jardin which is located about a 10 minute walk away from Central Square. The hostel was perfect for us, with spacious rooms, a chill out area, communal kitchen and a free breakfast.
Our Lady of Grace Cathedral
One of the main attractions in the city is to head to the roof of Our Lady of Grace Cathedral which can be found at Central Park. The cathedral is undergoing a bit of a makeover and is being freshly painted which adds to the grandness of this beautiful building. For $3 you can head up onto the roof where you will be asked to remove your shoes before being allowed to walk on the white domed roof.
It was so peaceful upon the roof of the cathedral with fantastic views over the whole city and the stunning backdrop of the volcanic landscape.
If you are visiting Leon, there is no way you can miss volcano boarding down Cerro Negro, an active volcano located around 45 minutes out of the city. We booked our tour through the hostel with Nica Time and found this to be one of the cheapest tours around at only $21 – You will also need to pay a $5 entrance fee at the volcano but the tour still worked out cheaper than most.
We were provided with a board, a backpack which includes overalls, goggles and gloves and 2 bottles of water. I would recommend taking a bandana or a scarf to protect your nose, mouth and ears when flying down the volcano and also some long socks so you can tuck your overalls into them.
The hike to the summit of the volcano takes around an hour and it’s quite a pleasant walk, even with the weight of the board. You can pay a porter $5 to carry your board but I honestly wouldn’t bother, it’s really not that heavy.
One thing to make sure is that your goggles aren’t missing any parts as Chris’ goggles were missing a small rubber protection plug so as he flew down the volcano he ended up with all the dust and stones flying in to his goggles and almost blinding him!
I was pretty scared about going down the volcano but I volunteered to go first and I loved it! I was a little hesitant at first but the good thing is you can go as slow or as fast as you want as you break with your feet. In the end I was flying down at full speed which was so much fun.
We really loved a bar called Via Via which is opposite BigFoot Hostel and has a great happy hour, you can buy a litre of Tona, the local beer for 50 Cordobas which works out just over a £1.
We visited a cool bar called Katu a few times which had various drinks offers and also served food. This was a relatively new bar and we loved the décor and the feel of the place.
We had a fantastic meal at El Bodegon which is rated one of the top restaurants in Leon. They have a quirky little courtyard to the back of the building which makes the perfect setting for a date night and the service is also top notch. The menu is only small but the food is gorgeous, definitely worth spending a few extra bucks on.
Everytime I walked by Kiss Me ice cream shop it just drew me in. I stopped by for a treat on our final night in Leon and it was just as good as it looked. Pretty pricey for ice cream but I do love ice cream!
If you are craving some beach action, then Las Penitas is only a 45 minute bus journey from Leon. Many people just go there for the day but we decided to spend 2 nights at the Pacific coastal town at Caracolito hostel.
Las Penitas is a surfing destination but the waves were huge and only advanced surfers had any chance when we were there. This is a really quiet town with not much going on, 1 night is probably long enough.
We fell in love with Granada’s colonial charm as soon as we arrived despite the fact it was chucking it down. Don’t you just love rainy season! Granada was definitely one of our favourite places to visit in Nicaragua.
We booked 3 nights at Surfing Donkey at the Lake which is about a 10 minute walk out of the town centre. This fairly new hostel comes with a swimming pool and free breakfast and has a stunning sunrise view over Lake Nicaragua, the biggest lake in the country.
Cathedral of Granada
One of the highlights of Granada for me was the view from the top of the cathedral in central square just as the sun was setting. For just $1 you can climb the steps to the balcony of the cathedral and then climb all the way up to the bell tower.
La Merced is one of the prettiest churches in the city and again you can climb to the bell tower for panoramic views of the city and a gorgeous view of the cathedral for only $1.
Places to eat and drink
Calle la Calzada is the main street in Granada where you can find many cool bars and restaurants. We ate at O’Shea’s Irish Pub and the food was such a great reminder of home, the Shepherd’s Pie which came with a cheesy mash topping, delicious!
We also found the cutest brick oven bakery called Pan de Vida which served some of the best banana bread we have had on the entire trip. They also make pizza’s too which look so good! We wish we had found this place sooner, it was awesome.
The Garden Café was such a great spot for lunch and to escape the heat for an hour or 2. The place was heaving with digital nomads, tourists and large groups but the food and service was excellent. The menu is a mix of sandwiches, salads and main meals so there is something for everyone. I went for a cobb salad and it was one of the best salad’s I’ve had on the entire trip.
The Lava Rock Grille has live music each night and serves up an amazing burger. They advertise they sell the best burgers in Granada and they do not disappoint.
Laguna de Apoyo
There are quite a few hostels and hotels surrounding the lake but even a dorm room was working out quite expensive for us just for one night so we decided to take a day trip to the lake.
Laguna de Apoyo is only around a 30 minute journey out of the city and is easy to get there by public bus. Simply take a minivan heading to Managua and tell the driver you are going to Apoyo. The van will drop you off at the bottom of the hill leading up to the laguna and from here you can take a collectivo taxi for 100 Cordobas or wait for the public bus. If there are a few of you heading up there, the taxi works out almost the same price and is a lot quicker.
We spent the day at Laguna Beach Club which offers a full day pass for just $6 and gives you full use of all the facilities including kayaks, stand up paddle boards and even the kitchen if you wanted to cook your own food.
The lake is absolutely beautiful and it would have been easy to spend a few days relaxing here away from the hustle of Granada.
Isla de Ometepe
We travelled to Isla de Ometepe by public tansport which worked out a lot cheaper than a shuttle. It was a fairly straight forward journey but we did get ripped off at the bus terminal in Rivas for a taxi to the port. The taxi driver tried to charge us $9 for a 5 minute journey, absolutely scandalous! We managed to get the fee down to $5 but even then it was still well over the odds by local standards.
The ferry to Ometepe cost 50 cordobas ($1.50) and takes an hour to get there. From the ferry terminal, we jumped on a public bus to Hospedaje Bullshark which is an hours drive. There will be people offering taxi services but the bus stop is literally just around the corner from the port and a hell of a lot cheaper.
There is so much to do on Ometepe that I would recommend at least 3 or 4 nights there to really enjoy the island. We rented a motorbike for 48 hours and it really is the best way to get around but be warned, some of the roads are just dirt tracks and you will feel as if you’re dicing with death at every turn.
San Ramon Waterfall
One of the main hightlights for me was the trek to the San Ramon waterfall. We did take a wrong turn getting there – When you arrive to a point which forks off to the left and the right, take the right turn.
Entry to the waterfall is only $3 and the hike takes around an hour. It’s a fairly easy climb but it is recommended to wear trainers and take plenty of water with you. Once you arrive you will immediately want to run into the water and cool off, it was a hot and sweaty hike!
Another awesome activity which is super cheap is the hike to the view point of Volcano Maderas. You have the option to hike all the way to the summit but we opted to just hike to the viewpoint which in itself is just as good according to some hikers we met at the view point who were on their way down from the summit.
The hike only costs $1 and takes around an hour and a half depending on your fitness levels. You don’t really need a guide to do the hike as the trail can be found on Maps.Me. Once at the viewpoint you are rewarded with views of Volcano Conception and both sides of Isla de Ometepe.
Punta Jesus Maria
The point can be found just past the airport and is the point where both sides of Lake Nicaragua meet. Entry costs $1 and is a beautiful place to visit, especially as the sun is setting. There is a small restaurant serving food and beers.
Oyo de Agua
Ojo de Agua is another great day out and we were able to walk here from our hostel which was only 15 minues away. The entrance fee is $5 and once in the park there is a bar, restaurant and picnic benches. We went on a Sunday and it was quite busy, I imagine that during the week it’s a lot quieter as there were many local people enjoying the pool.
San Juan del Sur
Our final destination in Nicaragua, was the infamous San Juan del Sur – known for it’s crazy party reputation, this is where Chris wanted to spend his birthday.
As we were planning to stay in SJDS for a week, we booked an air bnb so we had the comfort of our own apartment. If you are heading there and don’t fancy staying in a wild party hostel, I highly recommend booking with Tracy and Joseph. Their studio apartment is a block from the beach and even has a sea view terrace! You can view their apartment here.
Where to eat and drink
Iguana bar is a good place to start the night and from Monday – Thursday they offer ladies free drinks from 10pm-12am. There happy hour drinks are pretty reasonable, you can enjoy 2-4-1 cocktails from 5pm and beers for $1.
LIT is a great place for dancing. I can’t actually remember too much about this place due to the free drinks from Iguana but I know I had a great time!
Nacho Libre is a great little find and offers awesome food and drinks. We called in here on Chris’ birthday and found our favourite shots Café Patron for only $3!
There are so many bars to choose from, I am sure if you are heading to San Juan you will find your own favourite.
For a delicious breakfast / brunch the best spot we found was Dale Pues. The food was so good and they even serve a breakfast burger much to Chris’ delight. I went for a veggie bagel which was super tasty.
The infamous Sunday Funday pool crawl is one not to be missed. You can only buy your tickets on Sunday morning from Pacha Mama hostel which is the first stop of the pool crawl. Tickets go on sale from 9.30am and cost $30 which includes entry into all the parties and a free vest.
The party starts at Pacha Mama hostel and continues at Ana Mar, Naked Tiger and finishes at Aribas. It is such a wild day and you probably won’t remember 90% of what you did, who you met and definitely how much you drank.
Things to do
The first thing you will notice in San Juan del Sur is The Christ of Mercy Jesus statue which sits overlooking the pretty fishing bay. You can hike to the top in about 30 minutes or if you’re lazy you can even take a taxi. As we love a good walk, we set off down the beach and then had to catch a small boat over the river for 10C each. Once there you can either follow Maps.Me app or look out for the signs directing you to the top.
Entry costs $2 and the 360 degree views of the bay are definitely worth it.
San Juan Del Sur is a huge surfing hot spot in Nicaragua and there are a number of beaches close by. The cheapest way to get there would be by shuttle which you can take for $5 and leaves from Casa Oro. We didn’t actually make it to any of the beaches as it rained for most of the time we were in town but we heard they were pretty stunning.
We spent 25 days in Nicaragua but could probably have done this in a much shorter time. If you would like more details on the public transport please let me know in the comments below.
Keep on wandering!