The Nutshell Guide to Nicaragua: Leon to San Juan Del Sur

Nicargua is a fantastic country to visit, especially if you are looking to escape the winter in the Northern Hemisphere: it has wonderful colonial towns, great beaches and wonderful landscapes, from active volcanoes to Central America’s largest lake.  

We did a short, 10-day version of the “Gringo trail” through Nicaragua, sticking to the Pacific coast from Leon to San Juan Del Sur.  As we travelled in January the weather was amazing. As for the prices, we were on a backpacking budget.  Accommodation ranged from $15 to $20 per person per night for a shared en-suite double room, while transport was around $5 per person per day on average as we mostly relied on local transport (aka chicken buses).

 For activities I tried listing things that are either completely unmissable or slightly off the beaten track and put suggested length of stay in each city.

 

  1. Leon (1.5 days)

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Stay

Backpackers Hostel – the hub of tourist life in Leon and the birthplace of volcano-boarding. Loud, but fun and a great place to meet people. Also does free transfers to Las Penitas beach, where they have a sister hostel there.

See/Do

Leon Cathedral – The walk around the roof-top offers fantastic views over the city and surrounding volcanoes

Ortiz Foundation – Central America’s largest museum of contenporary art is worth a visit for great local exhibits as well as a wonderful setrting in a pair of colonial houses

Volcano boarding – Done on nearby Cerro Negro volcano, Volcano boarding is very fun and Leon is the only place in the world where you can do it

Food / Drink

Leon Market – one section of the market offers tasty lunches prepared by local ladies for about $3 dollars. After sunset there are small grill stations in front so you can enjoy some wondeful local meat.

Bars on 1era Calle SO – planty of local joints if you want to enjoy the latin beats and escape the tourists congregating between Bigfoot and Via Via hostels/bars

 

  1. Las Penitas (1 day)

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Stay 

Big Foot Beach hostel – Although it is party-central just before the sundown when the bus from Leon pulls in, it is nice and clean and has a good bar

See/Do

Surf – large waves make it difficult to swim, but are excellent for wannabe surfers. Several places rent out the boards and offer classes

Food/Drink

Bertha – affordable seafood place where you can get a lobster for $10

 

  1. Granada (2 days)

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Stay

Selina’s – despite often bumbling staff and slight pretentiousness, the location is unbeatable

See/Do

Centro Cultural Convento San Francisco – Lovely museum explaining local history and displaying great naïve art as well as pre-Colombian artefacts

Iglesia de la Merced – Wonderful baroque church with unbeatable views of the City

Mercado Municipal – Granada’s awesome, chaotic, beating heart

Mombacho Cigars – Cigar factory housed in an opulent villa, where you can buy quality cigars, run by descendants of Cuban families which brought tobacco to Nicaragua

Cementerio Municipal – Collection of bone-white fancy tombs of the city’s rich housing the remains of several Nicaraguan presidents

Food/Drink

El Gordito – one of the three kiosks serving local fair on the central square

Espressionista –  stylish coffee-shop/concept shop serving great acidic coffee

Hotel Dario – elegant courtyard makes it a perfect stop for a happy hour cocktails

 

  1. Isla de Ometepe (2 days)

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Stay

Hospedaje Central in Moyogalpa if you’re staying for 2 days. Anywhere in Balgue if you are planning a longer stay

See/Do

Motorcycling (or ATVing) around – the only way to explore the island is to hire a motorcycle or an ATV

San Ramon Waterfall – less strenuous alternative to climbing Concepcion Volcano is preferable for those who don’t want to spend the whole day and risk being stuck in the clounds. Although the waterfall itself is a bit small, the nike through the forest is wonderful. Definitely take your motorcycle/ATV as far as possible on the path as it will save you a lot of time and the ride will be a thrill.

Ojo de Agua – beautiful natural pool to relax and watch birds

Food/Drink

Café Campestre, Balgue – great grub, especially the avo burger

Hospedaje Central, Moyogalpa – cheap, cheerful and good wi-fi

The Cornerhouse, Moyogalpa – pricey but good place for breakfasts which would not be out of place in Shoreditch or East Village

 

  1. San Juan Del Sur (2 days)

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Stay

Casa Oro – funky walk-ins only hostel with great staff and decent free breakfast

See/Do

Playa Hermosa – incomparably better than the town beach, this wonderful beach is worth the bumpy ride and $10 coast to get there. It is great for surfing and OK for swimming.

Sunset from Cristo de la Misericordia – the steep hike to the giant Christ statue offers great views across the bay and is best enjoyed for sunset

 Food/Drink

Asados Juanita – a family run grill lorded over by charismatic Juanita who’s been in the business for three decades. Best meals we had in Nicaragua.

San Juan Brewery – craft beer place across the road from Asados Juanita, with good live music and very decent beer

Nacho Libre – good burgers with fun names

San Juan del Sur Surf and Coffee shop – boutique/café with good espressos

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