This Central American Country Is Home to Beautiful Beaches, Epic Surf, and a Rich Cultural History
Nicaragua is a postcard-worthy destination that harkens back to simpler travel times.
Lined with emerald-green coasts dotted with old-school fishing villages, it's a place where you can surf nearly empty lineups as if you were still in the '70s.
I've sailed around its Pacific coast in a catamaran, stopping at deserted islands to watch dolphins frolic by. I've danced salsa in a corner bar in Granada, one of the oldest colonial cities in Latin America. I've ridden motorcycles through dense jungle trails in Popoyo, had gallo pinto on the side of the Pan-American Highway, and made friends that will last a lifetime. But these experiences barely scratch the surface of why Nicaragua is one of my favorite destinations.
For starters, Nicaragua is not for everyone. It's rugged and traditional, with a bit of edge and a bloody past. But it's also home to a rich cultural heritage and friendly locals who go out of their way to get you the most delicious seafood, help you catch a wave, or show you the way around the backroads.
I first went to Nicaragua in 2015, when the country was experiencing somewhat of a golden age. A combination of affordability, an under-the-radar reputation, and the rise of surf tourism made towns such as San Juan del Sur popular. This lasted for about three short years. It was a time when things were fairly peaceful, the economy was growing, and tourism was booming. Since then, due to civil unrest and the pandemic, it has become less common to see positive headlines about the nation, but what keeps people coming back to Nicaragua — stunning nature, pristine beaches, and lively culture — is still intact.
Nicaragua is set between the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea. Upon landing in the capital city of Managua, most people flock to the Pacific, where the surf is some of the most consistent in all of Central America and the cities of Leon and Granada offer deep cultural insight into this beach destination. Yet, it's on the Caribbean coast where you'll find the most untouched lands. In this area, expect to find Indigenous, Creole, and British influences in the fishing communities that live among the mangrove-filled jungle.
Best Time to Go to Nicaragua
While many tropical countries around the world count on an extremely dry and rainy season, Nicaragua has a milder version of both. The dry season here runs from November through May, though it's not as barren as its neighbor Costa Rica. Meanwhile, the rainy season, which spans April through October, brings torrential downpours (especially in October), but note that it's rare for it to rain all day every day.
The one thing that's rather consistent in Nicaragua is the temperature. According to Weather Spark, "The temperature in Managua varies so little throughout the year that it is not entirely meaningful to discuss hot and cold seasons."
One more forecast you may be interested in is the surf. According to Giant's Foot Surf, for waist- to head-high swells, visit Nicaragua between March and September. But if you're looking for larger waves, you may need to come in the middle of the rainy season — between May to August — which Giant's Foot Surf calls the nation's "prime time."
Best Things to Do in Nicaragua
No trip to Nicaragua is complete without a deep dive into the world of surf, sun, and sandboarding.
The Pacific coast of Nicaragua is lined with beaches for all surf levels. Some must-see spots include Playa Maderas, Popoyo, El Tránsito, Playa Colorado, and Playa Hermosa, and it's possible to experience all of these during a weeklong trip.
El Tránsito is a short, 90-minute drive from the Managua airport. In El Tránsito, you'll find yourself immersed in a tight-knit community of locals and about some expat families. Stay at Mandla, a boutique hotel designed by a couple from England and South Africa. Make sure to eat every item on their menu, especially the fresh oysters.
Further south, you can stop at Popoyo, where consistent offshore winds and epic waves make it one of the best places to surf in all of Central America. Malibu Popoyo, a 12-room resort tailor-made for surfing families, is perfectly perched across from the beach, and stays here come with a great surf coach and tour guide.
Next, head down to Playa Maderas for a more mellow, family-friendly beach experience ideal for beginners. If surfing is not your thing, don't worry, as these beaches also flourish with local life, seafood restaurants, and occasional live music.
Want to see more land, but don't want to forgo surfing? Volcano boarding is your best bet. Yes, we are talking about sliding down Cerro Negro after hiking to the summit at 2,300 feet. The trek is challenging, but the ride back is unforgettable. All you have to do is hold a string attached to a wooden plank and slide down to the bottom at an average speed of 50 mph.
Lastly, visit Ometepe, an island formed by two volcanoes rising out of Lake Nicaragua. To arrive, hop aboard one of the wooden transport boats that may also be carrying anything from chickens to motorcycles. On Ometepe, you can choose to trek up the volcanic peaks, swim in natural pools, get lost on nature trails, or taste coffee right next to the field in which the beans are grown.
Best Hotels in Nicaragua
Anyone who lands in Managua also has the option to drive north or south, to choose between more populated areas or seclusion. But regardless of the direction, Nicaragua is full of small boutique hotels from renowned designers and hoteliers who flocked to the country in search of a more laid-back lifestyle.
For a design-forward property, check into the Tribal Hotel in Granada. Aside from its location on a colorful street, the New Yorkers who own the hotel traveled the world seeking unique pieces that complement the artisanship of local craftsmen. From Copacabana pool tiles to Indonesian batik fabrics, Tribal feels like a slice of the world on an unassuming corner in the bustling colonial city.
For those wanting to surf exclusive Playa Colorado, located within a gated community near Popoyo, Aurea is your best bet for guaranteed access to the world-class waves. The brutalist-inspired guest house, which was dreamed up by a group of Venezuelans, feels less like a hotel and more like a home within a community of expats and well-to-do Nicaraguans.
For something more accessible, book a stay at the aforementioned Malibu Popoyo, a 12-room boutique hotel owned by a female surfer and entrepreneur who fell in love with the area during a surf trip. Perfect for families in search of adventure and comfort, as well as surfers and creative types, the property is located a few steps from the beach and boasts an on-site organic restaurant.