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Smoky volcanoes, pristine beaches, beautiful colonial cities, crazy adrenaline activities, sleepy rural idylls and unexplored jungles – Nicaragua will exceed all your expectations. Our one-month itinerary into the heart of Nicaragua covers the main highlights with some bizarre detours: Corn Islands, Somoto Canyon, Rio San Juan and Indio Maíz Biological Reserve, the island of Ometepe along with the city of Granada, and the diversified coffee and cigar region of Northern Highlands.
Our one-month itinerary is divided into four, approximately one-week long loops, so you can easily modify it into one, two or three weeks’ itinerary – or rearrange the slots the way you’d prefer.
The Authentic Caribbean Vibes: Corn Islands (5–7 nights)
Some claim that Islas de Maíz are the most authentic Caribbean islands to be found. There is a steady flow of tourists, but both of the islands remain still quite undeveloped – Little Corn doesn’t even have roads. Prepare just to chill out and snorkel or dive, and don’t forget to feast on lobster, which is fresh and cheap. The mellow Caribbean vibes will soothe your senses and load the batteries for your tour in Nicaragua!
I suggest staying the last night in Big Corn to catch your flight on time, as you really can’t count on the panga traffic. Notice also that our itinerary demands taking the first flight in the morning out of Big Corn (8 AM) to catch a connecting flight to San Juan de Nicaragua (12 PM from the same terminal in Managua, very easy change with 2,5 hours layover).
The Ultimate Nicaraguan River Adventure: Rio San Juan and Indio-Maíz (4–6 nights)
With colorful wooden houses and a 17th century Spanish fortress, El Castillo is hands down the prettiest town on the banks of the mighty Rio San Juan. Wander up the winding cobblestone streets and concrete walkways to the fortress to get a bird’s eye over the foaming El Diabolo Rapids, which slowed down marauding pirates back in the days.
One night was enough for us, but feel free to extend if you feel the urge just to relax. However, don’t expect wild adventures, as much of the nearby jungle is cut – and there are roads. It pays to visit Rio Bartola though if you’d like to see another side of Indio Maíz.
Getting to Indio Maíz Through San Juan de Nicaragua and Onward to El Castillo
Fly to San Juan de Nicaragua and try to book an accommodation beforehand for the nights you’ll spend there. For logistic reasons, you’d need to stay at least the first and the last night in town. We spent three nights, which became torture due to the very basic accommodation options, so I recommend just two nights if your flight and ferry schedules allow.
After your arrival, try to negotiate the Indio Maíz trip for the following day with some of the Rama Indians around. In one night (two days) Indio Maíz trip you’ll see a lot. If you are ok with staying two nights in a very basic Indian house, I’d recommend expanding the adventure. Then you could either reach further than Canta Gallo or do the same as we did but at a more tranquil pace.
On the last morning catch the earliest possible ferry from San Juan de Nicaragua to El Castillo. It’s about 4,5 hours’ journey via Rio San Juan (with the fastest panga). Usually, you’ll see many crocodiles on the way, along with beautiful sceneries.
From Beaches to Mountains: Ometepe, Granada, and San Juan del Sur (8–10 nights)
Ometepe (3–5 nights)
The picturesque island of Ometepe deserves at least three nights from your itinerary. I could have spent even more. Hike a volcano (there’s even two to pick), swim in the smooth, fresh water of Lake Nicaragua, visit Ojo de Agua, and enjoy great meals after all the rice and plantains consumed in the jungle. Devote also enough time just to unwind and admire the views over vast black sand beaches to the imposing cones. A separate article covering the enigmatic petroglyphs of Ometepe is coming out soon!
Getting to Ometepe Through San Carlos
On the last morning catch a ferry to San Carlos (1,5 hours). From San Carlos catch either a flight (convenient option) or a night ferry to Ometepe (14PM–0AM, be prepared for delays and some ripple around midnight).
Rancho Chilamate or the Pacific beaches near San Juan Del Sur (2 nights)
Cowboy up and slow down for a couple of days at lovely Rancho Chilamate. The ranch is located conveniently in the middle of Nicaraguan countryside, but only 30 minutes ride from the surf city of San Juan del Sur. Wake up to the roar of howler monkeys, collect some organic eggs with the staff if you wish, pat the pet parrot, pigs, and lovely dogs, dip in the pool and enjoy collective ranch style dinners. A highlight for us was a sunset ride with some serious galloping at a beach.
Getting to San Juan del Sur From Ometepe
Take a taxi to the port of Moyogalpa (Ometepe) and hop on the ferry heading to San Jorge (1 hour). The easiest option is to take a taxi from San Jorge to San Juan Del Sur (around 20$). Alternatively, a colectivo brings you to Rivas, where you should change to a school bus. If you fancy a top-notch horseback riding experience or an all-inclusive ranch stay like we did, Rancho Chilamate will pick you up from the town.
Granada and Mombacho Volcano (3 nights)
Get civilized among the boutique hotels, international restaurants, and pubs of Granada. There are some downsides: the beautiful colonial center is lined with tourism related services and the herds might drive you crazy. Day trips are the draw here: drastic volcanoes and tiny islands glimmering in the Lago Nicaragua await just outside the city.
Visit at least the national park of the Mombacho volcano to get a postcard view over the city and the islets. It’s easy to get there with a taxi, and an old military truck will transport you to the top. Another easy day trip with a taxi brings you to the top of aggressively fuming Masaya volcano, the gate of hell according to the Spaniards. Squeeze at least one the volcanoes into your itinerary; we visited them both.
Getting to Granada from San Juan del Sur
Hop on a school bus from San Juan del Sur. If the bus is heading to Managua, tell the driver to drop you off at the crossroads of Granada, where you can pick a mototaxi to the center. Remember to bargain!
Colonial Charm, Cigars, and Adventures of the Northern Highlands (8–10 nights)
León (2–3 nights)
Unassuming León became my favorite city in Nicaragua. It’s a crumbling colonial charmer bursting with revolutionary murals and intellectual vibe. Spend no less than two nights to experience the streetscape and allow at least one day trip. We had an epic fun volcano boarding trip to Cerro Negro and returned to the city iced with the black volcanic sand.
Getting to León from Granada
The easiest option is a daily door-to-door shuttle from Granada to León, if timetable suits your itinerary. Otherwise, hop on Managua-bound bus or minivan, and change in the capital to a León bound vehicle.
Estelí & Somoto Canyon (2–3 nights)
Streets of Estelí, the cigar capital of Nicaragua, are sprinkled with revolutionary murals. Strategic location on the Pan-American Highway, just a stone’s throw from Honduras, has made Estelí the last Sandinista stronghold and the commercial center of the north. Visiting a cigar factory is a must, even if you don’t smoke. The center of Estelí feels refreshingly non-touristic and makes a pleasant base for a few nights.
If you make it to Estelí, venture even further and spend a fun day at Cañon de Somoto. This recently “found” canyon is among the most amusing sights Nicaragua has to offer. Local guides offer kind of “nature adventure packages” mixing hiking, swimming, paddling, and plowing through the canon. You can also jump from the cliffs into the clear blue water down below – I was fool enough to jump from the scaring height of 16 meters! Check out our separate article for inspiration: Swimming Through Somoto Canyon in Nicaragua!The one-week itinerary from León to Esteli and Somoto is a must for all adventure junkies.
Getting to Estelí and Somoto from León
Expresos run between León and Estelí only twice a day, so check timetable in advance or hop on a shuttle. The trip takes around 3 hours.
We’d suggest day tripping Somoto Cañon from Estelí unless you’d like to rough it again since Estelí has some decent lodges with wifi and hot water. Take 7.30 AM expreso (1,5 hours) from Estelí to Somoto to allow enough time in the canyon. Negotiate a deal with an official guide at Somoto’s bus station to get also the transport to the site (either by bus or taxi, included in the price). The last expreso leaves to Estelí at 3.15 PM.
La Bastilla Coffee Farm (or Jinotega) (2 nights)
If you love coffee, you just have to include a night or two at a coffee farm into your itinerary. Jinotega is the best place to do it, as the area produces 80 % of the nation’s coffee. We stayed at La Bastilla Coffee Farm and Ecolodge, and enjoyed a thorough introduction into coffee growing and production. Their coffee was among the best we dragged back home from Nicaragua. Still, the best part was the breathtaking view from our porch over a cloud forest, towards Apanás Lake. The location is well off the beaten path at the altitude of 1200 meters in the Datanli el Diablo nature reserve, but your efforts will be rewarded.
Getting to Jinotega from Estelí
There are a few daily chicken buses (ruteados) from Estelí to Jinotega (2 hours), and La Bastilla Ecolodge offers private transport from the town to the estate (35$ one-way).
Matagalpa (2 nights)
Continue boozing on high-quality coffee against a backdrop of a charming mountain town. Feel free to visit nearby coffee or tobacco farms or wander in the pristine nature. We ended up enjoying mostly the garden and hospitality of our art-deco boutique hotel haven. Montebrisa B&B alone could serve as an adequate reason to visit this old Indian town: it’s one of our favorite boutique hotels in Nicaragua!
Getting to Matagalpa from Jinotega
Chicken buses connect Jinotega and Matagalpa every 30 minutes (1 to 2 hours depending on your luck). Views are to die for but expect to encounter real chickens aboard.
How to Travel in Nicaragua
We used internal flights, boats, both quicker expreso buses and slower chicken buses, taxis, and even ox-carts to travel through Nicaragua. Even if you have unlimited time and love slow travel, we’d recommend at least a couple of internal flights. For example, the Corn Islands and San Juan de Nicaragua are hard to reach without flying. The rest depends on your timeframe, personal likings and budget. We opted to stay in nice hotels, whenever they were available but were ready to rough it for the sake of adventure, as well. You can check our favorite boutique hotels in Nicaragua from this article.
If your flight time allows, it’s totally acceptable to skip Managua and start your expedition right away. It’s easy to take a taxi from the airport (Augusto César Sandino, MGA) to either León (1,5 hours), Granada (45 minutes and even less to Masaya) or Matagalpa (2 hours). Alternatively, you can take a connecting flight to Corn Islands or San Juan de Nicaragua (latest flights leaving at 1.35 PM to San Juan de Nicaragua and 2 PM to Corn Islands).
Even locals wondered how we could have seen so many places in just one month, but for us, this 4-week itinerary felt tranquil enough to take in our surroundings. Whether you’re planning a one-week or one-month tour in Nicaragua and have any further questions, just leave a comment below. We’re happy to help with your itinerary, and I can guarantee that you’ll fall in love with Nicaragua!
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