Want to visit Nicaragua but don’t have a lot of time? Follow in my footsteps and you’ll be amazed at how much you can do and see with just 1 week in Nicaragua!
Just so you know, you’re going to have problems planning a trip to Nicaragua. The problem with Nicaragua is that it has too much to offer. There are beautiful colonial cities paved with cobblestones, volcanoes to hike or sled down, waves to surf, beaches to relax on, coral reefs to dive. There are jungles to trek, islands to explore, ruins to see. So if you’re planning a trip to Nicaragua, you’re probably going to have to make some tough choices, because it will take a long time to see everything Nicaragua has to offer.
That was the problem we ran into when we were planning our trip, especially since we were limited to 1 week in Nicaragua. Did we want a beach vacation in the Corn Islands? Did we want to learn to surf in San Juan del Sur? What about volcano sledding in Leon? We wanted to kayak in Ometepe and hike in the cloud forests of Mombacho. Oh, and we couldn’t visit Nicaragua without a stop in the brightly colored colonial city of Granada, could we?
We eventually settled on the following itinerary for our 1 week in Nicaragua, which is a perfect blend of adventure, relaxation, and sight seeing. If you use this itinerary, I can guarantee you will have a great trip to Nicaragua.
Leon: Days 1-3
We chose to begin our trip in the old city of Leon, located approximately 60 miles (96 km) from Managua, where almost everyone flies into. (Don’t waste any time in Managua, there is nothing exciting to see there). Leon is the second largest city in Nicaragua, but it has the feel of a smaller city, full of small restaurants, street vendors, and cathedrals galore. We spent our first day getting oriented to the city, drinking fresh squeezed juices, and browsing the markets.
Leon is the starting point for going volcano boarding at Cerro Negro. Volcano boarding is exactly what it sounds like: you haul a wood and sheet metal sled up the rim of a dormant volcano, then sled down the mountain to the base. The ride from Leon takes about an hour, and the hiking and sledding took an hour and a half to two hours. The hike can be somewhat strenuous at times, mostly due to the heat and carrying the sled, but at least coming down is much easier!
We were back in Leon around lunchtime, which meant we had the afternoon to sightsee and visit the main attraction of Leon, the roof of Basilica Catedral de la Asuncion, which is in the main plaza of the city.
Basilica Catedral de la Asuncion is a UNESCO World Heritage site that is famous for its wavy, domed roof and view of the city and surrounding landscape. It costs less than $1 to go up to the roof and they only allow visitors to go up once per hour, but you can spend as much time as you’d like on the roof once you are there.
Tip: It was difficult for us to find where to buy tickets. To buy tickets to the Leon Cathedral, find the back of the building, which faces the street markets. There is a small door on the left side of the wall, which leads you down a narrow, low hallway to a desk where you can buy your tickets. We spent over 30 mins trying to figure this out on our own!
After the Leon Cathedral, we headed over to Bigfoot Hostel, which is the biggest hostel in the city and also offers a ton of activities and transportation. We booked ourselves onto a bus going to Ometepe Island the next morning. Booking private cars is rather expensive in Nicaragua, so we opted to take a shared bus since we weren’t in a hurry and it was considerably cheaper than hiring a driver.
Ometepe Island: Days 3-6
On our 3rd day we took the shuttle to Ometepe Island. The drive lasted about 7 hours, as we had to stop at the airport and in Granada to drop passengers off. If you’re in a rush, definitely consider hiring a taxi to take you.
Once you arrive in the port town of Rivas, you can buy your tickets for the ferry to take you across Lake Nicaragua to the island port town of Moyogalpa. The tickets are cheap, just a couple of dollars, and the ride takes approximately an hour. Once in Moyogalpa, you’ll be met by hoards of tuk tuks and taxi drivers, all looking to take you to your hotel or lodge. The island is made up of 2 volcanos, Concepcion in the north and Maderas Volcano in the southern part of the island. The ferry terminal is on the north part of the island.
There are a lot of options for lodging on Ometepe Island, and many are quite far from the ferry dock. We chose to stay at Hospedaje Soma, which is a secluded eco-lodge just a few minutes outside of Moyogalpa (or Moyo, as the locals call it). While it is not on the lake, it’s a beautiful, tranquil lodge and a perfect base for exploring Ometepe Island. We spent the rest of day 1 lounging in the hammocks that were strung up in the trees in Hospedaje Soma’s garden. I could have spent the entire week here.
There is so much to do on Ometepe that it will be hard to fit everything in. One popular activity in Ometepe is to hike to the top of Concepcion Volcano. The hike begins before dawn and takes most of the day. We did not do this, but if you’re into hiking this is a great day trip.
On our second day in Ometepe Island, we rented motor scooters to explore the island. This was so much fun (even though I crashed- don’t drive off the paved road!) There is only one road on the island, so you can’t get too lost. Make sure to take a detour to Ojo de Agua, which are freshwater spring swimming pools set in lush jungle. There is a restaurant at Ojo de Agua so you can eat lunch and have cocktails in between dips in the pools.
Water sports are popular in Ometepe, and you can rent kayaks at many of the resorts that dot the coast for a very reasonable rate. Kayaking is also a great way to see the beauty of the island. It’s not every day that you get to kayak in the shadow of a massive volcano! Take a swim after your kayak trip to cool down. We spent our third day in Ometepe kayaking and lounging at the beach at the Charco Verde Resort.
Granada: Days 6-9
Take a morning ferry back to the Nicaraguan mainland, then head to the beautifully restored city of Granada.
Tip: Have your hotel/lodge arrange for a driver to meet you at the ferry terminal to take you to Granada, it will save a lot of time and hassle.
Granada is definitely the most touristy city in Nicaragua, and we were glad that it was the last stop on our trip. We didn’t have air conditioning at all in Leon and Ometepe, so it was nice to end the trip with the luxury of a cold, comfortable room.
Spend a day exploring the colorful city. If possible, book a room at a guesthouse with a pool because Granada gets really hot in the middle of the day and it’s nice to be able to cool down in the hottest hours.
Granada is the starting point for a lot of different activities. We went on a zipline tour one day, and after the zip lining, a tour of a working coffee farm was included. We thought the tour would be kind of boring, but it was super interesting to learn how the coffee is farmed. The zip lining and coffee farm tour is a half day tour, so you’ll be back to Granada in time for a late lunch. You can book this at any travel agency in Granada or though your guesthouse.
If you’re in Granada, you can’t leave without visiting the Masaya Volcano at night. You can easily book the trip at a travel agency or through your guest house. You leave after dark, following a winding highway out of the city and up into the mountains. The park is very popular and they only allow a certain number of people in at a time, so expect to wait as long as an hour to be able to drive into the park. There are bathrooms towards the entrance that you can use while you wait.
Once inside the park, you are limited to approximately 15 minutes of viewing the Masaya’s lava filled crater. There is one vantage point that everyone crowds around, and for good reason (you can’t really see the lava anywhere else). Even though it’s such a short time, it is well worth the time and cost of the excursion. It’s not everyday that you get to see lava sloshing around inside an active volcano!
Day 9: Managua
On Day 9, depart Nicaragua for your flight home. I recommend taking an afternoon flight if possible so you don’t have to rush or wake up early. The drive from Granada to Managua is approximately 1 hour. On your flight home, start planning your next trip to Nicaragua.
Nicaragua is similar to Costa Rica in terms of activities and landscape, but without the high costs and hoards of tourists. It’s a fantastic destination for travelers because it’s so cheap and relatively off the beaten path. You’ll be hard pressed to spend more than $7 US on a meal (usually less), hostels are $10-20 per night, and you can stay in beautiful guesthouses and eco lodges for $30-40 per night. Go now before everyone else catches on!
Travel Tips for Nicaragua
- Nicaragua is a Spanish speaking country and you will need to know a bit of Spanish to get around easily as English is not widely spoken, especially outside of Granada
- Nicaragua is HOT, so bring light clothing and don’t be surprised if you feel like you need to change halfway through the day
- If you are renting a motor scooter in Ometepe and your guesthouse recommends a certain company, listen to them. When I crashed my scooter the lodge manager negotiated a very fair price for the repairs ($60). We heard and read stories about people renting scooters in Moyogalpa on their own because it was cheaper than the rentals recommended by the hotel, and when they crashed they were charged nearly $1,000.
- Shuttle buses around Nicaragua are plentiful and run daily to almost anywhere you want to go, including international destinations in Central America. It is much cheaper to take a shuttle than a private car. We paid $40 to get from Leon to Ometepe on the shuttle and it would have been nearly $200 to hire a driver to take us there.
- Nicaragua charges an entrance fee for a tourist card that you must turn into customs when you leave. It is $10 USD and they only accept cash. We were not charged an exit fee.