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Plan your gap year to Nicaragua with this ultimate travel itinerary

Written by Milly Whitehead on 11 / 05 / 2022

Gap Year Advice

Nicaragua has not had the huge influx of tourists yet, and remains a place of authentic charm, full of natural wonders from rainforest, mangroves, stunning surf beaches and colourful coral reefs to towering active volcanoes and crater lakes. It is amazingly un-spoilt and you will be met with friendly welcoming arms. The grand colonial cities with their atmospheric streets and plazas are stunning and have a great party vibe. It is set between tectonic plates, so has a landscape shaped by volcanic activity with smouldering peaks, spectacular deep crater lakes and lush forests which are a haven for wildlife.

To top it off, it is an easy country to go backpacking in, it is cheap, safe and small and not too far between highlights. Most of the fun stuff happens in the west of the country so super easy to navigate.

A trip to Nicaragua is very easy to get to from Costa Rica via numerous daily flights or by road via the Penas Blancas border crossing which is relatively hassle-free. The best time to visit is in the dry season which runs from December to April.

Best Itinerary Highlights


1. Managua

This is the capital city and a great starting point for your gap year to Nicaragua. It is a city of contrasts, where you can see a horse and cart pull up alongside a lorry. Rather underwhelming but there are some fun things to do such as:

  • Hike to the highest point in the city: the hill of Tiscapa
  • The Santiago Cathedral is an impressive building worth a visit, this is one of the few old buildings in the city that wasn’t completely destroyed by the devastating 1972 earthquake that wreaked havoc on most of the city

2. Leon

Nicaragua’s most enthralling city. It was the former capital, so is graced with its majestic colonial buildings, a cathedral, numerous churches and beautiful streets. It is the cultural and intellectual centre, hosting the National University, best art gallery and a huge student population. It is vibrant and fun with great restaurants and nightlife, live music and theatre.

The Sandinistas were a Nicaraguan revolutionary organization active in Nicaragua from the late 1970’s to the early 1990’s, many ex- Sandinista live in Leon and this is a good place to find out about the history of the Nicaraguan Revolution. Check out:

  • Metropolitan Cathedral a UNESCO World Heritage Site
  • The Museo de Arte fundacion Ortiz guardian
  • Visit a cigar factory

Around Leon

After the eruption of the Momotombo Volcano, Leon town had to move from its original site, you can visit the remains from the 17th Century, Leon Viejo. It's possible to hike up Momotombo itself and/or Cerro Negro, one of Nicaragua’s youngest volcanoes. You can hike the stark black slopes to reach two active and colourful craters with amazing views.

  • Also explore the Selva Negra Cloud forest Reserve. This was founded by German immigrants in the 1880’s. You can explore the region on foot or horseback, take wildlife and coffee plantation tours, the list goes on.

3. Pacific Coast

This is a dramatic landscape of dormant volcanoes, sweeping bays and golden-sand beaches backed by lush tropical forests. It is still relatively unspoilt and is a wonderful place to chill and explore:

Juan Venado Island Nature Reserve

This is one of the 78 nature reserves that are under official protection in the country. The reserve is home to a wide variety of different species including sea turtles, crocodiles and caimans.

Rio San Juan

This town is significant in the country’s history, and was used by everyone from indigenous traders to Spanish invaders and marauding pirates. The winding river is flanked by dense jungle, rolling hills and vast wetlands. The wildlife is incredible and you will spot sloths, howler monkeys, parrots and macaws as you head downstream.

Not to be missed:

  • El Castillo is the biggest town, on a sharp curve in the river, with its 17th century fortress dominating the view. The timeless colourful wooden buildings sit on stilts above the rapids
  • Head to San Carlos to explore miles of untouched rainforest by boat on the San Juan River
  • Hike through the remote and unspoilt Indio Maiz Biological Reserve to seek out the 600 species of tropical birds and 200 species of mammals and towering cathedral trees
  • Playa Madera – popular surfer hang-out nearby

4. Ometepe Island - Lake Nicaragua

Give yourself a week here. A dramatic pair of volcanic peaks rising from the lake on this gem of an island. Ometepe offers wildlife, relaxation and wonderful walking. The volcanic soil feeds rich cloud forests abundant with wildlife, monkeys, armadillo, opossum and deer.

Explore:

  • La Cascada de San Ramon waterfall
  • Hiking, riding or walking
  • The volcanic peaks
  • Visit Petroglyphs dating from 300BC

5. Granada

This is a stunning picturesque city of grand colonial architecture, gilded churches and cobbled streets made for wandering. It is set between the magnificent Lake Nicaragua and towering Mombacho volcano. It is a relaxing, easy-going city buzzing with cafés and restaurants and a vibrant nightlife.

Explore:

  • Take a boat trip to Las Isletas, an archipelago of tiny volcanic islands just offshore
  • Visit the Cathedral
  • Haggle in the open air markets in the main square
  • Laguna De Apoyo, a fresh- water lagoon, the area is home to an excellent nature reserve with plenty of outdoor activities
  • Masaya Volcano – visit this enormous Santiago crater. Here you can smell the sulphurous gases and hear the lava bubbling below. Take a tour at dusk, you can see the lava glow and marvel at the phenomenon of the green parakeets who return to roost every night
  • Mombacho Volcano. The cloud forest here is full of luxurious vegetation and abundant wildlife that you can zip-line through

6. Somoto Canyon

If you have time, do explore this ‘off the beaten track’ canyon, a must for any adventure-junkie. Hire a guide who will provide you with life-jackets and everything else you need to explore the canyon safely, you will spend the day floating, swimming and jumping into the river winding through the canyon.

7. Corn Islands

If you love diving and snorkelling, do not miss these charmingly laid-back islands.The food here is excellent and you can relax on white-sand beaches backed by colourful wooden houses.

Little Corn Island is the clear winner for backpackers with its dreamy beaches. This is very mellow and the stunning natural beauty and the chilled-out vibe make the effort to reach the island totally worth it. There are no cars on this island so you get around on foot or bikes. You can also learn to dive there.

How to travel around Nicaragua

Independent backpacking or in need of some structure?

The above itinerary could be enough for many gap year travellers but if you would like more information about where to stay, how to get about and a few in country contacts then join LEAP VIP- a travel resource built by our gap year travellers for future gap year travellers.

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