Why We Chose Nicaragua & Why You Should Too

Why We Chose Nicaragua & Why You Should Too

Wanting to escape to someplace foreign this past summer but short on time due to Jave’s demanding work schedule, we decided to cash in on some frequent flyer miles for a quick jaunt to Granada, Nicaragua. When we shared our plans with friends and family, they were perplexed as to why we’d want to go there. So I thought it’d be helpful to share some of the factors that we considered when choosing Nicaragua as our getaway destination, and hopefully, you’ll be inspired to travel there too.

It’s Authentic

Nicaragua tourism is still in its development stages. Despite the fact that more and more expats are settling in Nicaragua for its affordable real estate, and more and more tourists are traveling there, it’s sandwiched between destinations that are undeniably more popular – primarily Guatemala and Honduras to the north and Costa Rica and Panama to the south. Nicaragua’s relative unpopularity is one of the reasons that Jave and I were drawn there for a visit.

Still, as noted, travelers are quickly discovering the benefits of Nicaragua tourism. On more than one occasion during our trip, we heard from other tourists and locals alike that Nicaragua is more appealing than Costa Rica, for example, because Costa Rica is overrun with eco and adventure tourists. Consequently, according to a fellow traveler we met who’d just left Costa Rica, it seems to be losing its authentic sense of culture.

Our local guide, Carlos, said that he made the same observation during his travels to Costa Rica. He also expressed concern about the impending construction of the Nicaragua Canal – a project that’s being headed by Chinese businessman, Wang Jing. With construction of the canal set to begin in December 2014, Carlos said that many Nicaraguans are concerned about the environmental impact that construction will have on the water levels of Lake Nicaragua as well as the potentially adverse impact that an increased foreign presence and influx of tourists will have on the country’s cultural identity. Nevertheless, Carlos explained that he’s hopeful because the Nicaraguan government seems to be taking these issues to heart and it seems to be committed to developing the country gradually and responsibly.

If the Nicaraguan government succeeds, tourists to Nicaragua will continue to be rewarded with an unadulterated encounter with the country’s culture, its land, and its people.

Iglesia de la Merced

A typical neighborhood in Granada
A typical neighborhood in Granada
A typical home in Granada – locals normally sit in their doorways rocking in their rocking chairs

It’s Affordable

Like many other Central and South American countries, Nicaragua is very affordable. While we spent about $460 for our hotel and food during our 3-day/2-night getaway, we could’ve spent a lot less if we’d chosen to stay in cheaper accommodations such as a hostel. We usually take the boutique hotel route, so for about $115 per night, we booked a hotel in the heart of Granada where we had a huge room with a huge balcony (complete with rocking chairs) that provided an uninterrupted view of the Cathedral of Granada. Not bad at all for a little luxury!

We also could’ve spent less if we’d only eaten street food or at local cafetíns where you can easily get a meal of “comida tipica” for about $2 to $5.

In fact, on our first afternoon in Granada, Jave and I indulged in street food (two full plates of vigarón and sodas) followed by a trip to a local bar where we each ordered drinks, and our grand total for the afternoon was about $14.

Even our tours and excursions were very reasonable and never exceeded more than $30 per person. Our chocolate-making workshop at Choco Museo cost about $19 per person (not including tax), and one morning, we each got 1-hour massages for about $24 per person (not including tax). That’s very reasonable in my book considering that most massage schools in urban U.S. cities charge at least $35 for a 45-minute massage.

It’s Naturally Beautiful

Forming part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, Nicaragua is a country full of volcanos and lakes. With the added bonus of the Atlantic on the east and the Pacific on the west, Nicaragua offers a diverse landscape full of lush vegetation and wildlife. If you base your Nicaragua stay in Granada, not only will you have striking views of Mombacho and its seemingly ever-present cloud forest, but you’ll also have quick access to the neighboring town of Masaya where you’ll find the Masaya and Nindirí volcanos.

Mombacho
Mombacho
Nindirí

In terms of lakes, Masaya Lake is at the base of the Masaya volcano, Lake Apoyo is nearby, and Granada sits on the shores of Lake Nicaragua – the nineteenth largest in the world. While there are many other volcanos and lakes worth mentioning, I’m only focusing on those located near Granada since that’s where we stayed.

Exploring Lake Nicaragua
Lake Apoyo
Lake Apoyo

It’s Relatively Safe

When discussing our Nicaraguan travel plans, one of our friends’ and family’s primary concerns was our safety. And I can understand why. Having lived in Panama as a kid in the early ‘80s, there were two places in particular that my family would never consider venturing off to – Colombia and Nicaragua.

In 1980, Nicaragua’s dictatorial Somoza dynasty came to an end when he was assassinated in Paraguay after seeking refuge there in hopes of escaping the Sandinistas who’d taken over the country. Adding fuel to the fire, there was in-fighting between the Sandinistas, and eventually the Contras, an anti-Sandinistas rebel group were backed by the CIA to oust them. Long story short, the ‘80s were not a great time to be in Nicaragua. Then in the ‘90s, Nicaragua endured a lot of political and social unrest due to rigged elections which were unsurprisingly backed by the United States.

I’m sure that news stories of Nicaragua’s years of socio-political instability along with its poverty were the source of our loved ones’ concerns. But according to the State Department, although there are gangs and petty street crimes (as is the case in most countries), crime in Nicaragua is less frequent than in its neighboring countries.

With that said, Jave and I never felt the slightest bit unsafe during our stay in Granada. However, we had enough common sense to not venture out alone at night, to avoid isolated streets and shady-looking areas, and to refrain from flaunting our money and cameras. Although we did notice that every bank and ATM machine we visited had armed guards on standby, we never experienced any safety issues during our short stay there.

Its Food is Amazing

You can’t leave Nicaragua without trying vigarón which, as I previously mentioned, is a street food that we ate for lunch on our first afternoon in Granada. I have to admit that this dish of mashed manioc topped with slaw and fried pork skin wasn’t exactly my favorite. Served on a banana leaf, I probably would’ve enjoyed it more if it was served warm instead of at room temperature.

What I did love in Nicaragua was the beef! While I’m not a big red meat eater, I have to say that the beef in Nicaragua is some of the best I’ve ever had. In fact, I haven’t had beef so juicy, tender, fresh, and non-metallic tasting since my years living in the Midwest where grass fed beef is king. As with most Nicaraguan meals, your beef will be served with beans, rice, plantain, and salsa that has a bit of kick. On our last afternoon in Nicaragua, we stopped for lunch on La Calzada at a restaurant called Nectar. While we ate at more authentic restaurants, the beef at Nectar was equally delicious.

Nicaragua is also well known for its seafood, and in Granada, local restaurants are sourced with fresh catches of guapote from Lake Nicaragua. Guapote is huge and rather mean-looking with gnarly teeth, but it tastes dang good! If you want to make sure that your fish is fresh, don’t be shy about asking the waiter to bring the fish out for your inspection before ordering – that’s what the locals do!

It’s an Ideal Place to Volunteer

Nicaragua is one of the poorest countries in Central America with the average worker earning around $2 to $3 per day. According to Carlos, construction workers typically earn around $10 per day making the country’s minimum wage one of the lowest in the Americas and in the world. Although Carlos told us that most Nicaraguans are content to live simple lives, the need in the country is apparent.

In any area where there’s a tourist presence, you’ll likely be approached by young kids asking you to buy the fruit, souvenirs, or other knick-knacks that they happen to be selling.

We were approached by one young boy selling banana leaves that he’d shaped into figurines, and despite my attempts to tell him no gracias he insisted that I take a grasshopper figurine home with me. Short on Cordobas, Jave gave him the equivalent of $0.60 and we felt really badly about that. But Carlos assured us that $0.60 is a lot for a young kid. We were also approached by another young boy and his friends while eating in Granada’s Parque Colón. He asked for the remaining Coke in Jave’s glass and he drank it there on the spot and passed it around to his friends. I say all of this to reiterate that Nicaragua is a poor nation and as in many poor nations, kids are out on the streets hustling to make a living from a very young age.

There are many NGOs that you can get involved with to assist with Nicaragua’s sustainable development. Other volunteer opportunities in the country are focused on teaching English, providing healthcare, and addressing environmental issues including sustainable agriculture. GoAbroad is a great place to start your search for an organization that matches your volunteer aspirations. Nicaragua is definitely a place that Jave and I can see ourselves returning to again and again, not only to vacation, but also to volunteer.

PINNABLE

nicaragua-tourism

Have you been to Nicaragua or would you consider visiting? 

  • Julia S

    Question!! What time of the year did you go?? 🙂 I am curious to hear how it is during the rainy season vs dry seaosn. I know it’s a lot cheaper during the rainy season but does it really damper your trip so much so that people don’t travel there at all?

    • Dana Carmel

      Answer!! 🙂 We went to Nicaragua in late August and although it was the rainy season, we stayed in Granada on the Pacific side where it doesn’t rain as much. I think it only sprinkled for a few minutes a few times while we were there, so we really lucked up! But my philosophy is that as long as you can help it, don’t let the weather dampen your plans. Just prepare and dress accordingly and go with the flow. Which part of Nicaragua are you thinking of going to?

  • I’m reading so many articles recently about Nicaragua – it sounds like a really fascinating place with a lot of natural and cultural beauty not to mention the food you’ve referred to! Long way from England but maybe I’ll make it there one day!

    • Dana Carmel

      Nicaragua is awesome, Shikha! I’m looking forward to going back and exploring more of the country. We were only there for a few nights so we only got to see the Granada/Masaya areas, but there’s still so much of the country to explore. I hope you make it there soon before it starts losing some of its authentic appeal.

  • I moved here with my wife and kid about 4 months ago and we absolutely love it. I completely agree with you on the beef. The steaks I’ve had here are every bit as awesome as you describe. I will recommend one place to get an amazing jalapeno steak: La Zaguan. It’s a little pricier and “upscale” than other places here, but definitely worth treating yourself to.

    • Dana Carmel

      Wow, Clif! Congrats on the move. Yes – we ate at El Zaguan and absolutely loved it! I believe I had a skirt steak and it was so good. It’s unbelievable how much food you get for the money.

  • I was in Granada and San Juan Del Sur in August, checking out Nicaragua as a retirement option, studying Spanish and getting dental work done. So naturally I read this post. I almost jumped up and down as I scrolled through the photographs, yelling “you photographed my street!” Your picture of a “typical neighborhood in Granada” is the street I walked down every day for almost three weeks to my homestay, which was down the street to the left going towards the baseball stadium. That farmacia is where I bought my antibiotics and pain pills after my dental surgery! I guess my excitement tells me that I’m missing Granada and can’t wait to get back there.

    As far as cost of living is concerned–it depends how you want to live. Hostels are upwards of $15 a night for a private room, around $10 for a dorm room with lockers. I spent $250 or $275 for room and board with a Nicaraguan family and 20 hours a week of Spanish lessons, and the weekly rate included one weekend and might include some local outings as well, depending on the Spanish school. I’d say that’s a pretty good deal.

    I’m planning on moving there late next year and will definitely be starting out on a very frugal budget. Lots of good people, beautiful country, slower-paced life.

    • Dana Carmel

      Claire – we may have crossed paths in Nicarauga. In fact, you may have been on that typical neighborhood street when I photographed it. Small world! I think it’s great that you’re considering Nicaragua as a retirement option. It seems like an ideal place to retire for all of the reasons you mentioned. And you’ve already tested their healthcare system by getting your dental work done there. Also, I think it’s awesome that you did a homestay. That’s the best way to learn the language and to get a feel for the local culture. Good luck with your future move! And thanks for reading!

  • Pingback: Why We Chose Nicaragua & Why You Should Too – Time Travel Plans | Bed and Breakfast Farmstay El Portón Verde, Managua()

  • Never been there but Nicaragua looks like an amazing place to visit, especially for backpackers. The food looks so amazing it is something that I would really love to try.

    • Dana Carmel

      The great thing about Nicaragua is that it’s ideal for all travelers, but backpackers have the added benefit of experiencing its beauty and culture on the cheap. I hope that you get the chance to visit someday to enjoy the food. I’m definitely looking forward to going back to volunteer!

  • Nicaragua looks like an amazing place to explore, especially for backpackers. Although you mention it’s a very affordable travel destination, I still doubt we could manage to survive there for less than $25 a day per person. The food looks so amazing and healthy and it’s really cheap :).

    • Dana Carmel

      I’m not sure what the going rate is for hostels, but $25/day in Nicaragua might well be a possibility all other things considered (i.e., food, transportation, and free activities). You might be able to house sit or work on a farm or take advantage of some other affordable/free accommodation option. I think it’s definitely worth researching if Nicaragua is on your travel wish list.

  • Hi Dana! You are very convincing. Nicaragua is indeed a place everyone should visit at least once. The smiles on those kids are awesome!

    • Dana Carmel

      Yes – even though many of the people are poor, Nicaraguans are very happy people. Even the kids!

  • I have never visited but I am sure I would love the country. From what I see, the people are humble, hard workers, and welcome outsiders. The food looks great too – all natural.

    • Dana Carmel

      Yes, yes, and yes Eduardo. Go! 🙂

  • Good article. Thanks for writing and sharing. My comment is that this can help people thinking about making a trip to Nicaragua decide that it is the place for them to go. So good on ya’…

    My other comment is that, since I live and work here (running a small bnb in the hills outside of Managua), I am reading this thinking “wow, they are overpaying” so it is all relative. Certainly for the average vacationer from North America, Europe, Asia, or South America, prices in Nicaragua are very fair.

    Cheers, Mike @ Farmstay El Porton Verde

  • I really like the affordability of Nicaragua…and it’s funny I am going to Costa Rica soon but would love to visit Nicaragua too. Nice points Dana!

    • Dana Carmel

      Thanks Charu – thanks for reading! You should definitely swing by Nicaragua during your trip. I’d love to take a road trip through Central America one of these days.

  • Nicaragua was my favourite country when we travelled Central America. I thought it was a beautiful place with friendly people and as you’ve already touched upon, not so changed by tourism. Would love to go again!

    • Dana Carmel

      You’re right, Naomi. Nicaraguans are some of the nicest people we’ve met. They were so accommodating!

  • You have just made Nicaragua move up my travel list. I love everything you listed here – the views, cost, food, that chocolate workshop and cheap massages. I’m glad to see that it’s also a doable long weekend trip from Southern CA. The lakes are beautiful!

    • Dana Carmel

      Woot – glad to help you become a Nicaragua-believer, Mary! I love the fact that it’s so accessible from SoCal. If we’re short on time during our future travels, I now know that I can take similar trips to other Central American destinations!

      • I used to fly out of LAX all the time, and for short trips definitely recommend the red-eye TACA flight. You get to MGA at 9 something in the morning and have the day to get a jump on some of your ground travel or get a tour in before most people have even arrived.

        • Dana Carmel

          That’s exactly what we did, Mike. We took an overnight flight from L.A. and arrived early in the morning and had the full day to explore Granada and get settled in. And despite somewhat negative reviews I’d read about TACA, we actually didn’t have any problems apart from a slight delay on our way back to LAX. And yes, you’re right – prices are all relative because I was very pleased with our accommodation which was right in the heart of Granada. I’ve always been interested in a farm stay though, so perhaps we need to check out your B&B the next time we’re in town. Thanks for reading and for your comments, Mike!

  • It’s a beautiful place, indeed…

    • Dana Carmel

      Definitely, Muza-chan!

  • Nicaragua does look amazing. We are going to South America early next year and I am hoping that we can travel up to Central America too. I have always been intrigued by Nicaragua. I think they have quite a lot of human rights type NGOs, so it would be a great place for us to work actually.

    • Dana Carmel

      Nicaragua is ideal for volunteering and I was actually surprised by the infrastructure in place. I’m not sure if that’s true throughout the country, but there was great infrastructure in place in Granada. We are definitely going to return to Nicaragua to volunteer, and if you do, I’ll look forward to reading about it on your blog!

  • The attractions and sights in Nicaragua looks really nice. I really like the small island in Lake Nicaragua.

    • Dana Carmel

      Yes – there are actually 365 isletas in Lake Nicaragua. I’ll be sharing about that experience soon on the blog. Thanks for reading, Salika!

  • Mishanda

    Great article!! Now I want to visit Nicaragua. I have to add it to my travel bucket list.

    • Dana Carmel

      Thanks for reading, Mishanda! You should definitely do that!

  • My husband has been – for work but found his down tome there to be very enjoyable. I’d go in a heartbeat – but I’d never touch Honduras. Again my husband said it was the most dangerous country he has ever visited. We spent 12 days in Colombia this past year and loved it – and found it very safe.

    • Dana Carmel

      My dad went to Honduras many years ago and he said the same thing. But I know that a lot of expats invest there – especially in Roatan which is a place that definitely has me curious. What surprised me is that a lot of tourists we met were pumped about El Salvador. As the murder capital of Central America, that’s a place that I’ve been hesitant to visit, but apparently, it’s a great destination!

  • I tend to forget that if you’re from the US (well, some parts of the US) you can have a quick getaway to Central America like we do with European Capitals.

    I’d like to try that beef! Plantains are yummy, too bad I can’t get them easily in Italy…

    • Dana Carmel

      Yes, Mexico and Central America are at our fingertips for those of us in the western U.S., but I’d love to have all of Europe at my fingertips!

  • Would love to visit one day!

    • Dana Carmel

      You definitely should, Becky.

  • Well, you’ve convinced me! That picture of you in front of Lake Apoyo is great. Also, an hour long massage for $24?! Sign me up.

    Happy travels 🙂

    • Dana Carmel

      Thanks, Lauren! You definitely can’t beat a massage like that. I could use one now!

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