I made an unplanned 11-day trip to San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua in late November of 2010. I had such an incredible time and talked to other travelers about the many other great places to visit in Nicaragua. I spent another 2 weeks in Leon and Granada in February 2011. I still plan to go back and explore this country even more.
General: Food & Drink | Getting Around
Granada: Safety | Where to Stay | Traveling Cheap | Sites & Activities | Restaurants, Cafes, Bars
León: Safety | Where to Stay | Traveling Cheap | Sites & Activities
San Juan del Sur: Safety | Where to Stay | Traveling Cheap | Sites & Activities | Restaurants, Cafes, Bars
- It’s really easy to get to the main cities, especially the ones that I visited. If you are taking the Tica bus from Honduras, the bus will drop you off in León on the way to Managua. If you are taking the Tica bus from Costa Rica, the bus will drop you off in Rivas (transfer by local bus to San Juan del Sur), Granada, or Masaya on the way to Managua. Always ask about potential stops (even if not advertised) when you buy your ticket because you can usually get dropped off along the way.
- I got the feeling that while there is not violent crime here, but there is probably some theft/ robbery as in any tourist destination in Latin America. I was advised to take taxis and not wander out of the main tourist section at night.
- The market area is a bit dodgy and overcrowded, so be mindful of your belongings.
Where to Stay – Amigos
- I first checked into Hostel Oasis. This place is clean and has nice common areas to hang out and a pool, but it was way too big for me. There were 24 beds in my dorm room, and the top bunks were super high and really difficult to get into. The hostel must have slept over 200 people. If you want to be around a lot of travelers, this may be the place for you. Be aware they have a really crappy kitchen.
- Amigos is just a couple doors down from Oasis, and the Nicaraguan woman who owns it actually lives there and runs the place. Although it isn’t the most modern or fancy accommodations, it is clean and it felt more welcoming and less like a cattle farm. There is a pretty good kitchen and common areas, excellent wifi, and lockers for your valuables. Plus, it’s only $6 a night (3 bucks cheaper than Oasis). They do not have a website, but you should be able to contact them via email at email@example.com.
- Even though this is a tourist town, you can find cheap food pretty easily. It is mainly the tourist restaurants on and near Calle La Calzada and the Central Park that charge slightly higher prices.
- There is a huge market where you can buy cheap fruits and veggies. Check prices at a couple places first. You don’t always have to barter, but some vendors will give you a higher price. You can also have lunch at the market for less than $1.50, but you’ll have to wander the maze to find the ladies with the grills. Just past the market, you will find Pali, the cheap grocery store to stock up on staples and buy water.
- There is a lot to see for free or cheap in Granada, and you can walk everywhere. If you want to visit some attractions on the outskirts (e.g. Laguna de Apoyo, Pueblos Blancos, or even Masaya), you can take local buses cheaply and safely rather than paying for a tour.
- The Cemetery. It may seem strange, but I love to walk through cemeteries, and Granada’s is quite stunning with the mixture of large, ornate tombs for the wealthy and powerful and the simple crosses marking the graves spanning out over the hill. I read that it’s the oldest in Central America.
- The Bell Tower of La Merced. Climb the bell tower for $1, and you will have incredible views of the city. The afternoon close to sunset is the best time to go, although this is also when everyone tries to go.
- People Watching in the Central Park. The Central Park is surrounded by ornate buildings housing fancy hotels and cafes, as well as the stunning bright yellow Cathedral. Horse-drawn carriages line the park. Street vendors sell food and crafts.
- Art Gallery on Calle La Calzada. I don’t know the name of it, but there’s a small art gallery on the right side as you walk down this street.
- Casa de Los Leones. This is on the small square next to the Central Park. There is an art gallery ($1 entry), and the building houses the Fundación Casa de Los Tres Mundos. The organization hosts events, usually free/ donation requested (typically $1-2). I enjoyed a youth philharmonic concert here. Stop by to see what events they have going on or look at their website.
- Salsa, Bachata, or Merengue Lessons. At APC Spanish School right on the Central Park, you can get a private 1 hour lesson for $5.
- Cafetín El Volcán (one block from Hostel Oasis/ Amigos) has cheap local fair. Their tiste and cocoa drinks are delicious and cost about 50 cents. The quesillo here is supposed to be the best in town, and it’s only about 50 cents. The owner is also very friendly, so feel free to ask about the traditional foods on the menu.
- La Taza Blanca (next door to Amigos) has great cheap coffee (50 cents for a decent portion). I never ate here, but I heard the breakfast was good value and delicious from others staying at my hostel.
- Bars on La Calzada. This is the street to be on in the evenings. With outdoor seating and a great breeze, it’s worth checking out this expat/ tourist scene at least one night. You have to put up with people trying to sell you crap, but it’s worth it for the people watching. And even better, you can buy the local beer at normal prices ($1).
For me, León was the perfect size city. Big enough to “bustle,” but not too big that it felt impersonal or overcrowded. It’s a university town, so you get a more modern, liberal atmosphere. This place doesn’t cater to tourists/ travelers. You just feel like you fit in.
- I felt completely safe walking all over the city taking photos during the day. At night, I felt completely safe walking around even by myself although I wouldn’t stray too far to the outskirts of the city.
- If you are a woman walking alone, you will have local men staring and making comments/ kissing noises at you. However, it usually is not done in a threatening way, so just ignore it and you’re fine.
- This place is pretty much the perfect hostel. It is secure and clean with a great, spacious kitchen, and open-air common areas with hammocks and tables and chairs for relaxing and mingling with other guests. It is even decorated nicely.
- They have free wifi and a computer for guests to use. They have an excellent book exchange. They have free coffee all day and a free pancake breakfast (really crepes and you make them yourself using the batter they prepare in the morning).
- It’s a little further from the Central Park than other hostels, but you get quiet for that, and it’s still less than a 5-minute walk.
- Dorm is only $7 a night. You can find a place for $1 or 2 cheaper, but the atmosphere here is worth the extra buck in my opinion.
- This place fills up, so you may want to make a reservation in advance, especially if arriving on the weekend.
- El Museo de Leyendas y Tradiciones. This is a weird little museum well worth the $1 entry fee. It is built at the former site where the National Guard tortured prisoners. The museum walls depict the torture methods. Inside the cells, there are life-size models built depicting local legends/ folklore stories which are all very strange. Be sure to pick up an information booklet in both English and Spanish to read the legends.
- Climb to the Roof of the Cathedral. $1 entry fee. You get the best views of the city, as well as the surrounding mountains. Plus the top of the cathedral itself is really interesting. There are about 30 cupolas, and you get an up-close view of the statues holding up the bell towers.
- People Watching in the Central Park. In the late afternoon when the schools are letting out, the park is filled with girls in their uniforms socializing in groups and street vendors selling quick snacks and trinkets.
- Volcano Hikes. There are many, many options, so go to different tour providers and see what you like. I did a 2-day hike that included volcano boarding on Cerro Negro, spending the night on the top of El Hoyo, and hiking to Laguna Asososca. If you only want to do a day, try volcano boarding. I do NOT recommend Quetzaltrekkers. In my opinion, they were unorganized, unprofessional, and they did not even bring enough food for the 2-day hike. Note that I have heard Quetzaltrekkers in Guatemala is much much better and highly recommended by other travelers.
- Walk through Subtiava Neighborhood. A little slower and less crowded. A nice quiet walk with pretty much no other travelers.
San Juan del Sur
San Juan del Sur is a very small beach-town that mainly exists for surfing tourism. But I discovered that in addition to learning to surf, it is a wonderful place to slow down, relax, and enjoy the beautiful sunsets. It is truly “tranquilo.”
- I felt safe on the beach and walking around in this tiny town. I had no problems, however, I have heard from other travelers that sometimes there are robberies on the beach.
- There is definitely a party culture at night, so be careful if walking alone down the main street with all the bars.
- It is the only hostel that is right on the ocean. There is a large kitchen to make your own food. The rooms are small but nice and clean. There is a large open-air space in the middle of the hostel with hammocks all around and a large grill. There is a large patio in the front where you can relax in a hammock or enjoy a meal overlooking the bay.
- They have free water and coffee.
- They have small lock boxes to put your money, passport, and small electronics (bring your own lock). They have a safe you can use as well if you have larger items.
- They sell Tona beers at cheap prices ($1 or $2 for a liter).
- The internet is very reliable.
- The people that run it Ismael and Betina are really fantastic and helpful.
- Food isn’t super-cheap in this tourist town, but it’s certainly not expensive. If you buy your fruits and veggies in the small market in the center of town and stop at one of the small carnicerias for meat, you can make yourself good, cheap meals. There were also buy great fresh fish and cook it up yourself if you know how. There are many small tiendas that sell basics like bread, cheese, eggs, rice, and pasta. There is an actual grocery store at one end of town that will be cheap to buy your basics, but I never actually walked there.
- If you don’t feel like cooking, the cheapest meals can be bought at the market. There are a few small restaurants that serve breakfasts for around $2 and lunches for around $3. You can also buy tasty hamburgers and hot dogs from the street vendors for around $2.
- Hostels are cheap here, and you can find a good place with dorms for under $8 and private rooms for around $15.
- There really isn’t a whole lot to do in San Juan del Sur, but hanging out on the beach is free. Surfing can be done fairly cheap. For $10 you can take the shuttle to Playa Maderas where you will get picked up at the end of the day. And if you want to save money, two people can rent one surfboard all day for about $10 and take turns sharing it. If you go to Playa Maderas to surf, I suggest packing a lunch/ bringing snacks because you only have two options for food and beverages there, and they are a bit expensive.
- The beach. It just never gets old looking out at the ocean with the boats anchored in the bay, tree-covered hills around you, and a beautiful sunset.
- The hike to the Jesus Statue. Okay, the statue really isn’t anything special, but the hike up to it is challenging in the hot sun, and if you go the short way off the beaten path, you get to see some of the “real” San Juan del Sur where the locals live in small, modest homes nestled under the trees with laundry hanging in the yard and chickens and roosters walking about. Ask the locals as you go which paths to take for the shortest route. During the hike, You will also see some of the rich, modern homes that have built on the prime real estate overlooking the bay. The view at the top of the hill overlooking the bay and San Juan del Sur is well worth the effort. It costs $1-2 to get in.
- Relaxing – This place is made for relaxing. Be sure to stay at a hostel with a hammock and spend your days reading, napping, playing at the beach, and/ or doing whatever you enjoy.
- Salsa Dancing – There is a bar called The Crazy Crab all the way at the end of the main road. It is definitely more of a locals bar, and they play excellent Latino music including salsa, cumbia, reggaeton, and more. The dance floor was packed. One night I went, they even had an excellent live band playing. Check around to find out what they have going on each night of the week.
- Jogging on the beach – If you get up early before it gets too hot (before 7), you will have a nearly-empty beach to run.
- There is a new Italian restaurant that opened up recently on the beach. They have fantastic wood-fired oven pizzas and pastas for a reasonable price if you’re looking for a better meal.
- The hamburgers at Iguana are fantastic. They are huge and wonderfully seasoned. I also tried a fish and chips lunch one day that was also very tasty. The fish at the restaurants in San Juan del Sur is excellent and cheap.
- The Crazy Crab – Fun locals bar for dancing and seeing live bands.
- Eskimo – The local ice cream shop has tasty and very cheap ice cream. Don’t get the milkshake… terrible.