Blake Walsh

15 Best Things to Do in Nicaragua

  • Published 2021/11/04

Sitting on the Central American isthmus is the tropical country of Nicaragua, a vibrant and historical destination for the most daring adventurers.

Known as the “Land of Lakes and Volcanoes,” this country is home to many natural sites, including jungles, winding rivers, and epic beaches.

And as a country bordered by the Pacific and Atlantic, there are a ton of water-related activities to do as well.

Whether you’re an outdoor enthusiast, a nature lover, a thrill-seeker, or a culture buff, there is something waiting for you here.

So make this charming and exhilarating location you’re next destination for an upcoming international trip.

Here are the 15 best things to do in Nicaragua:

Tour the Sights in Managua

View of a Church in Managua

PixieMe /

For most people, the first destination they’ll see upon arrival in Nicaragua is the capital city Managua.

It’s a historic and cultural hotspot, with many churches, landmarks, pre-colonial sites, and modern attractions for the young and old alike.

One of the most visited locations here is Huellas de Acahualinca, which features footprints left by ancient humans from the Holocene era.

Cathedral in Managua

cnkdaniel /

Parque Historico Nacional Loma de Tiscapa is another recognizable landmark of the city, featuring the silhouette of national hero Augusto César Sandino.

This park also contains the controversial but magnificent golden trees, the Gustav Klimt-inspired installations, that cost $20000 each.

Cathedral in Managua

Henryk Sadura /

But perhaps the most significant attraction of this city is Lake Managua itself, surrounded by many volcanoes, natural parks, and smaller communities along its banks.

The city serves as the main harbor for the many tours and charters that go into the lake.

Catch the Best Waves at San Juan del Sur

Aerial View of San Juan del Sur

Bryce Jackson /

San Juan del Sur is located on the Emerald Coast, a beautiful region near the borders that Nicaragua shares with Costa Rica.

It’s one of the premier destinations on the Pacific side of the country, with golden sands and turquoise waters that create magnificent views.

And while it might be a small town, it’s one of the most visited beachside destinations because of the exceptional surfing opportunities.

View of San Juan del Sur

Brester Irina /

In fact, the annual Latin American Surfing Competition is held here, owing to the consistent swells brought by winds from the Pacific.

But even if you’re not a surfing enthusiast, you’re still welcome to visit here.

Many people come to view the magnificent Pacific sunset, with its shifting colors, peaceful vibes, and tropical ambiance.

Feel the Heat of Lava at Masaya Volcano National Park

View of Masaya Volcano National Park

Kristof Bellens /

Masaya Volcano National Park is the largest national park in Nicaragua, and it contains the eponymous and famous Masaya Volcano.

It’s only a few minutes’ drive from the capital city of Managua, making it one of the top places for tourists to get a first-hand experience of the “Land of Lakes and Volcanoes.”

View of Masaya Volcano National Park

mbrand85 /

In fact, there are few other places in the world where you can enjoy what Masaya Volcano offers: a close-up view of its molten orange magma.

Staring at this lava pit is like staring at the entrance of hell, and if you stay for longer than what’s recommended, you might just give yourself a one-way ticket to the afterlife.

It’s already dangerous activity to be on top of an active volcano, even more on its crater where you can inhale the toxic fumes that come from deep beneath the earth.

View of Masaya Volcano National Park

Adriana Margarita Larios Arellano /

So it’s best to follow the limits set by the local authorities.

But otherwise, it’s an exhilarating experience like no other!

The best time is to visit at night when the glow of the lava is at its brightest.

Challenge Your Hiking Skills at Somoto Canyon National Monument

View of Somoto Canyon National Monument

Travel Telly /

While not as vast as the Grand Canyon of the US, the Somoto Canyon National Monument offers its own mysterious charm that elevates this destination from the rest.

It’s one of the country’s best-kept secrets, located northwest near the borders that Nicaragua shares with Honduras.

Within the 420-acre park, you will find fast rivers cleaving through the deep canyons, pools of cool and clear water, majestic waterfalls, and unusual rock formations.

View of Somoto Canyon National Monument

BJ Clayden /

Your trekking skills will be challenged as you traverse the slippery surfaces and treacherous crossings abundant in the destination.

But the strenuous hikes are well worth the effort, as you’d end up in the most beautiful hidden pools surrounded by high limestone cliffs.

It’s the perfect destination for adrenaline junkies who want to try cliff diving in the middle of the forest.

Try Surfing at Apoyo Lagoon Natural Reserve

View of Apoyo Lagoon Natural Reserve

Cisco_96 /

What once was an ancient volcano caldera has been turned by time into the Apoyo Lagoon Natural Reserve, a high-elevation lake located near the city of Granada.

But don’t be mistaken; volcanic activity is still very much a daily phenomenon here, coming in the form of geothermal fumaroles.

This makes the waters of the lake slightly warm and salty, making Apoyo Lagoon Natural Reserve a saltwater destination on top of a mountain.

View of Apoyo Lagoon Natural Reserve

laranik /

It’s actually even possible to surf here, as the winds blow hard enough for waves to form near the banks.

But the most favorite activity here is kayaking, paddle boarding, swimming, and scuba diving for those who want to explore the vents.

You’re also welcome to trek the ridges surrounding the volcanic crater, which gives you a panoramic view of the lake and the surrounding forests.

Or you could simply hang out on the beaches or in one of the many lakeside dining facilities offering local cuisine.

Go Sand Skiing at Cerro Negro

View of Cerro Negro

Renee Vititoe /

Cerro Negro is the youngest volcano here in Nicaragua, and it’s famous for its dark ash that covers most of its slopes.

In a country known for its many volcanoes, this one stands out because of the unique activity that you can’t try on the other ones: volcano boarding.

View of Cerro Negro

PixieMe /

It’s not so different with snowboarding, except that you’d be hurtling down thousands of feet of black volcanic sand instead of pristine white snow.

This one-of-a-kind activity is one of the favorite things to do in Nicaragua, with many visitors braving the hike along the windy slopes while carrying wooden boards.

View of Cerro Negro

Tomasz Pado /

But the sand skiing experience is well worth the effort!

You might even reach speeds of more than 60 miles per hour while riding down the slopes of this volcano.

Now that’s a tale that will impress your friends!

View of People in Cerro Negro

Milosz Maslanka /

Join the Fun at Rio San Juan Carnival

One of the most anticipated events in the country is the Rio San Juan Carnival, a festival that brings out the most vibrant and colorful qualities of Nicaragua.

Locally called “Carnamar,” this annual celebration takes inspiration from the sea and the river San Juan, so most of the costumes are themed after aquatic life forms.

You’ll see people in fish, flowers, crab, and various other amazing dresses as they dance atop boats cruising the aforementioned river.

There are also parades and performances along the streets that run parallel to the river.

All these are held within the San Carlos department, with many municipalities and villages participating in the event.

It’s a great way to immerse in the culture of Nicaragua, so be sure to join in the celebrations during your visit!

Dive Into the Waters Around the Corn Islands

View of Corn Islands

Riderfoot /

If you need to take a break from the forests and lakes of Nicaragua, head over to the Caribbean side of the country, the Corn Islands.

These two small islands are located 70 kilometers from the eastern shoreline, with a few inhabitants calling the place home.

With scenic beaches, swaying palm trees, sheltered bays, and underwater caves, this place is a postcard-perfect tropical destination.

There are no cars here, and the houses are made of colorful wooden materials, making it a peaceful and undisturbed location for those who need to get away from their busy lives.

View of Corn Islands

Ekaterina McClaud /

One of the favorite activities here is scuba diving owing to the clear water, tropical aquatic creatures, and colorful reefs that create a magical underwater experience.

Once you’re done frolicking on the water or relaxing at the beach, visit the small restaurants that offer seafood dishes made with freshly harvested ingredients.

It’s the best way to cap off the day beside the sea and under the tropical sun.

See the Country’s Native Wildlife at Reserva Natural Bosawás

View of Reserva Natural Bosawás

Rebecca Ore, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Also called Bosawás Biosphere Reserve in English, the Reserva Natural Bosawás belongs to the country’s northern territories.

This region is known for its pristine environment and underdeveloped attractions that make it a perfect home for many endemic wildlife species, including iconic animals of the Central America region.

Having been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1997, the massive rainforest has remained a protected habitat for many mammals, reptiles, and bird species.

You can join one of the expeditions and tours that go through the park!

You’ll have plenty of opportunities for spotting animals like the resplendent quetzal, spider monkeys, tapirs, and, if you’re lucky, jaguars.

Just be sure to follow your guide as this place is quite vast and easy to get lost in.

But what’s a little danger compared to the once-in-a-lifetime experiences that you’ll gain while exploring?

Trek the Trails of Mombacho Volcano Nature Reserve

View of Mombacho Volcano Nature Reserve

mehdi33300 /

Mombacho Volcano Nature Reserve stands out among the other parks because of its cloud forest landscape covering 2,500 acres.

This unique habitat serves as the home for many of the country’s native flora and fauna, including more than 800 species of plants.

And since it’s a cloud forest, it’s constantly covered by a layer of mist that creates an otherworldly ambiance that will intrigue hikers and explorers.

View of Mombacho Volcano Nature Reserve

mehdi33300 /

This magical feel is complemented by the mossy trees, lichen-covered stone steps, and occasional sightings of the quetzal.

And once the mist clears, you’ll get an unobstructed view of the surrounding coffee plantations and rustic rural farms.

It’s truly a magnificent place to be, so make it a top destination in your itinerary!

View of Mombacho Volcano Nature Reserve

mehdi33300 /

Fish Unusual Game at Lake Nicaragua

View of Lake Nicaragua

milosk50 /

As the largest lake in the country and in Central America, Lake Nicaragua has earned a reputation as one of the must-see destinations.

It’s locally known as Lake Cocibolca, and it’s an important resource that irrigates the surrounding areas and provides water for many of the country’s residents.

There are many lakeside villages and destinations where you can immerse yourself in the local cultures and try regional dishes.

View of Lake Nicaragua

Russell Johnson /

You’re also welcome to charter a boat and head to the middle of the lake to hunt freshwater games such as rainbow bass, trout, sailfish, mahi-mahi, and even bull sharks.

Lake Nicaragua is the only freshwater lake that contains oceanic species, making it a unique habitat and ecological hotspot.

Isla Ometepe is another destination sitting in the middle of the lake, and it contains a natural swimming pool where you can take a cooling and calming dip.

The crystal clear waters of this attraction are the perfect respite from the humid tropical climate of the region.

Immerse in the Culture at Granada

View of Granada

Javier Garcia /

Granada is one of the major cities in Nicaragua, hosting most of the country’s colonial heritage and culture.

It’s located on the northern banks of Lake Nicaragua near the capital city of Managua, so you can easily access it by boarding a chicken bus or driving to the city.

One of the most prominent attractions here is the colorful colonial houses, with Spanish-style architecture and pastel paints that turn the cobbled streets into vibrant paths.

A Street in Granada

Benjamas Pech /

There are also lots of majestic and long-standing churches located here, including the oldest one in Central America: Convento y Museo San Francisco.

Another one is the Our Lady of the Assumption Cathedral, famous for its orange facade, intimate interiors, and Neo-classical architecture.

View of Granada

Kanokratnok /

For those who want a glimpse of the chocolate culture of the country, make a stopover at ChocoMuseo Granada Nicaragua.

Here, you’ll learn about the chocolate heritage of the region, understand the manufacturing process, and sample the heavenly bars made from the finest cacao seeds in the country.

Marvel at the Beauty of Cathedral de Léon

View of Cathedral de Léon

Lev Levin /

The city of Léon already has many beautiful destinations for adventurous backpackers, but Cathedral de Léon is the crowning glory.

Officially called the Cathedral of the Assumption of Mary, this destination is the largest church in Central America and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Its stocky exterior has influences of Baroque and Neoclassical designs, with the interiors sharing the same solemn and conservative architectural elements.

View of Cathedral de Léon

Angeladavila1993 /

But the real treat is the rooftop.

Visiting here is akin to stepping into heaven, with the unblemished and immaculate upper level gleaming white every corner you look at.

The uninterrupted skyline complements the bulbous designs of the buildings to create an otherworldly sight.

Take as many pictures as you can—it’s not every day you’d see something as intriguing as this location.

Sample Some Cigars at Estelì

Aerial View of Estelì

Tisey, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Estelì is another fast-growing city in the northern regions of Nicaragua, and it’s famed for its cigars.

Most people might associate this product with Cuba, but the city served as a refuge for Cuban cigar makers who fled the revolution.

And with their skills, a thriving tobacco culture was born.

Several plantations are scattered across the city’s rural outskirts, and you can join tours to these facilities.

You’ll get a chance to see how these world-class cigars are rolled, sample a few ones, and even take home a pack or two.

But if cigars are not your thing, you can simply visit the restaurants in town and try the regional dishes of Estelì.

Cacao drinks, chorizo, and other native sausages, and mountain cheeses are just some of the delights that will tickle your tastebuds.

HIke to the Stone Carvings of Tisey Estanzuela Natural Reserve

View of Tisey Estanzuela Natural Reserve

Kristof Bellens /

Near Estelì is another stunning destination, Tisey Estanzuela Natural Reserve.

This 78-acre protected area is home to an array of animal and plant species as well as waterfalls, rivers, and jungles.

But the real attraction here is the stone carvings sculpted onto the side of a mountain.

Alberto Gutiérrez Jirón, a celebrated Nicaraguan artist, has been working on the carvings for more than 30 years.

He made intricate images of animals, abstract patterns, cathedrals, ships, and other elements in an area that overlooked the coffee plantation that his family owned.

The result is a breathtaking open-air gallery comparable to the ruins of ancient Mayan or Aztec civilizations.

While the climb to this destination can at times be treacherous and strenuous, the views—both of the artworks and surrounding landscapes—are very much worth it.

Final Thoughts

The land of lakes and volcanoes packs more than just these geographical features.

You’ll see imposing cathedrals, nature reserves, colonial homes, panoramic islands—the list is endless.

So if you want an adventure that starts from the mouth of a volcano, down to a cigar plantation, and finally to a scenic surfing destination, then Nicaragua is the ideal place to be.

Check out this list and make sure the top spots are in your itinerary.

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