Backpacking in Nicaragua on a Gap Year

Countries  »  Nicaragua

When a country is called the ‘Land of Lakes and Volcanoes’ there isn't much else that needs to be said, and that's possibly why Nicaragua is becoming the new go-to backpacker destination. This Central American country has a very slow paced approach to life, with relaxing days on white beaches, mixing with locals who open and close their shops and cafes when they feel like it, and a general lack of urgency to be anywhere fast. That is, of course, unless you're hiking trails, kayaking through rivers, climbing up mountains, or ash boarding down volcanoes. Then things can be sped up just a tad. 

Where to go

In Nicaragua, most travellers tend to shorten their stay in the capital, Managua, and head straight to the ancient cities of Leon, Granada, and the surf town of San Juan Del Sur.  Leon is filled with historic reminders of Nicaragua’s colourful past, housing the Leon Viejo ruins, one of the oldest Spanish settlements in the 'new world', as well as the magnificent Cathedral Basilca, which was built between the 18th and 20th centuries.

140km away from Leon is Nicaragua’s other historical city, Granada. Backpackers can climb to the top of the Iglesia De la Merced bell tower to get a whole view of the city where you might even get a glimpse of Central America’s largest lake, Lake Nicaragua. To experience the wildlife of Nicaragua in a single day trip, then the Islets of Granada should be on the travel itinerary. Take a boat trip down the rivers and absorb the jungle scenery and the mighty Mombaco Volcano.

For those looking for a more laid-back stay, San Juan Del Sur is the place to go. When you're not resting on the hot beaches or partying with other backpackers, try taking on the waves along the Playa Hermosa and Playa Madras beaches, get the adrenaline going with mountain and quad biking, as well as taking on a ziplining canopy tour through the rainforests. You can also time your trip perfectly and watch baby turtles hatch beneath the sand before making a quick dash to the open sea.

Granada

What to do

The main attraction to Nicaragua isn’t the easy-way of life, or the historic European architecture, it is the overgrown forests, old-aged volcanoes and open waters. The natural diversity of this Central American country is split into different terrains: the Pacific lowlands in the west, which are home to several large volcanoes, Lake Nicaragua, and Managua. The Northern Central Islands is where Central America’s largest river, the Rio Coco flows, and the unappealingly named, but pleasant La Mosquito Coast. The third is the Amerrisque Mountains, which extend from Honduras to Costa Rica, offering beautiful views and chances for adventurous climbers to exert their energy.

One of the most popular activities in this intriguing country is the unique sport of ash boarding. The many volcanoes in Nicaragua have caused havoc, damage and unpredictable weather, but they have also given back to the country. Ash boarding involves climbing to the top of a volcano, Cerro Negro near Leon being the most popular, and surfing along the black ashes left by violent eruptions.

Another popular spot to see volcanoes is Isla de Ometepe, an island formed by two volcanoes in Lake Nicaragua. Visitors can travel by a one-hour boat ride to see the ancient petroglyphs and thriving rainforest, brought to life by the nutrients from the volcanic ash. After a couple of days of hiking through Nicaragua’s thick jungles and steep mountains, it’s nice to swap those boots for flip flops and wander around the beautiful Corn Islands.

The beaches of Nicaragua will make you feel like you’re in the Bahamas, with their endless white sand and deep blue seas. A cliché, but nonetheless true.To add more adventure into your day, you can take advantage of the clear waters by going snorkeling or scuba diving, and if you’re there on a Sunday you can join the crowds to watch a game of baseball, the country’s favourite past time. Next on the beach stop-over is The Pearl Lagoon, where the name matches the location. You guessed it, white sands and blue seas! An hour boat ride from the Pearl Lagoon brings you to the The Pearl Keys, a cluster of exotic islands, where there really isn’t much to do than drink from a coconut and doze on a hammock - what else do you need?

What to see

If you’re venturing to Central America to become a bit of an animal expert, then you can head to one (or all eleven) of Nicaragua’s national parks. Here you can trudge through wet lands, jungles, and tropical rainforests and hope to catch sight of sloths, monkeys, jaguars and more species of birds than you can imagine. Visitors can get tours through the forest and also visit a butterfly farm and a caiman nursery. Other popular wildlife reserves in Nicaragua are the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve, Mombacho Cloud Forest Reserve, and the La Flor Wildlife Refuge to see nesting sea turtles.

Howler Monkey