It wasn’t a death wish — I swear. OK, it could’ve been a cry for help, but dammit, I had to slide down that volcano. There are many reasons to visit Nicaragua, but top of the list is sliding down Cerro Negro — a young, active volcano just outside of the town of Leon. It’s one of the most exhilarating, life-affirming experiences I’ve ever had. I’ve lived to tell the tale, so read it below.
Nicaragua isn’t a natural choice for a first female solo trip, but it was an excellent one. I felt safe and would do it again 100%. BTW, this trip was taken in the winter of 2013, but last I checked all these places were still there.
- Nicaragua is a beautiful country for adventurers
- There are tons of backpackers passing through from Mexico to South America or vice versa
- Nicaraguans are incredibly friendly and helpful, so don’t be shy and chat them up
- Money exchange is widely available in each town, but you’ll want to get some cash at the airport to pay taxis
I flew into Augusto Cesar Sandino International Airport in Managua on a Saturday morning and immediately left town, as many people advised that it wasn’t the safest place for a female solo traveler. At first glance, it didn’t feel quite that sketchy. It looked quite beautiful, actually, but my itinerary was packed and sacrifices had to be made.
The bus is the cheapest option to get from Augusto Cesar Sandino International Airport to Leon. A taxi ride to Leon is about an hour away. I was quote $75 USD for the ride versus about $2–3 for the bus.
MGA is not a huge airport. When you exit to the curb, you’ll see the taxi line outside right away. Ask the taxi driver to drop you off at “estacion UCA,” which is across the street from Universidad Centro Americano. The taxi ride cost about 40 córdobas ($2–3 USD). The bus costs about that much as well.
It’s a little bit of a drive through side streets from the airport to the bus station. When you arrive, it’ll look a bit like an open air market. Don’t be alarmed if you don’t see traditional buses. The “buses” are the parked mini-vans with people surrounding them. Each of the parking slots has mini-van with different destinations. Ask around for the bus to Leon. If all else fails, make some friends and follow them around. A lot of people didn’t speak English off the beaten path, so brush up on your Spanish.
If you’ve already booked your hostel online, there is probably an airport shuttle that you can reserve through your hostel. But if you’re looking to kill time wandering around and asking people for directions, take the bus.
Stay: Big Foot Hostel
Big Foot is known as the party hostel, so if you’re looking for peace and quiet, look elsewhere. Because Leon is such a small town, this hostel is a big hot spot for travelers to meet up for a drink at night. The bar is a great place for solo travelers to meet people to take excursions with. Within an hour, I’d been invited to join a group to travel to another beach town, but I had plans of my own, so I passed.
Dorms start at $8 and private rooms start at $26. Airport shuttles start at $12. Prices have changed a bit, but still pretty close.
Must Do: Volcano Boarding
Volcano boarding is the main reason people trek out to Leon. It’s one of the most thrilling things you can do in your life. You’re sliding down an active volcano… in an orange jumpsuit, on a wood board. No brainer. You can book a volcano boarding trip at the hostel. It cost me $31 plus a $5 park fee. Transportation, a guide, gear and booze is included in the cost.
The truck leaves for Cerro Negro Volcano in the morning. It’s a bumpy, but super fun, 40-minute drive.
Once you’re there, there is one bathroom break before hiking up the volcano. It’s an easy, but exhausting 1-hour hike. Easy because there aren’t rock scrambles. Tiring because you’re walking at a steady incline for an hour while carrying a wood board and your gear. If you’re lazy like me, this part of the trip is God awful.
Once you get up to the top, you line up and go one-by-one. Pro tip: lie down flat for speed, sit up and use your feet as breaks to slow down.
Nicaragua is perhaps the only place on Earth to go volcano boarding, so this is a must for adventure seekers.
SAN JUAN DEL SUR
San Juan del Sur has the feel of a typical touristy surf town. It’s got cute seaside bars and restaurants with a fun nightlife. There are tons of day trips for surfers just outside of town, but I didn’t have time to do that, so I skipped. It is a huge draw for surfers and this town is easy to navigate, so don’t take my skipping it as a criticism on the town.
I took a shuttle from Big Foot Hostel to San Juan del Sur. It’s an easy trip and they drop you off in the middle of town.
Stay: Hostel Esperanza
This hostel costs about $25 per night for dorm rooms. I made the mistake of booking a dorm room and was woken up at 3am by a bunch of drunk surfers. They were fine, but loud and annoying. I left and they put me in a private room for the rest of the night, but by 6am I was out.
Must Do: Surf, Drink, Yoga
SJS has a lot of fun things for travelers like yoga, surfing and bars. It wasn’t my vibe at the time, but I made a couple of great friends while I was there.
MOYOGALPA / OMETEPE ISLAND
I’d heard a lot about Ometepe Island, but hadn’t planned on going there. Since I wasn’t feeling SJS, I decided to make a last-minute adjustment to my itinerary. Basically, I pretty much winged this whole part.
I called a taxi to take me from Hostel Esperanza to the ferry in San Jorge first thing in the morning. The Ometepe Ferry leaves several times a day, starting at 7am. It’s about an hour-long ride, so get comfortable. And make sure you’re on the right ferry. I took the 7am to Moyogalpa, which is one of the main towns on Ometepe Island. Once I arrived, I walked around from hotel to hotel to see if there were any rooms available. Spoiler alert: There weren’t!
Stay: Hospedaje Central/Indio Viejo
Pro tip: Check the schedule for the Fuego Y Agua ultra marathon. Hotels and hostels are all booked at that time and there’s no guarantee you’ll find lodging. Fortune was on my side because a woman on a moped drove by asking if I needed a place to stay and then gave me a ride to the Indio Viejo hostel. I was downright lucky to get a room. There are no current prices online, but when I went, it was $16/night for a huge private room in 2013.
Must Do: Climb Volcan Concepcion
I booked a hike up the volcano with my hostel. I can’t remember exactly how much it cost, but I believe it was $30. Just stop by the desk and reserve your spot. The expedition includes breakfast and two guides for a 6-hour hike up half of Volcan Conception. It’s a 10-hour hike to the top, which I did not do.
The elevation is about 5,282 feet through several different types of vegetation. Concepcion is active and last erupted in 2007.
Granada is great for people watching, sipping coffee and writing in your journal. It’s a charming city with colonial homes and a glimpse of old Nicaragua. I met the cutest couple from the midwest who bought a house and retired in Granada. They had no regrets. I also ran into my friends from San Juan del Sur, so it was a fun way to celebrate the last night of my trip.
There are multiple ways to get to Granada, as it’s one of the most popular destinations in Nicaragua. From Ometepe, I took the ferry back to San Jorge and shared a taxi with a family that I met at the dock. FYI, getting the taxi was chaotic and it was unclear how to get to public transportation from the port, so make friends and negotiate a ride together. Three of us paid about $12 each for the ride to Granada.
Stay: Hostel Oasis
This hostel was decent and in a good area. It’s $13/night for a private room. There’s a pool, computers, hammocks and a lounge area. It’s a short walk to the city center, but it was desolate and dark at night. I felt safe, but I also like to live on the edge.
Must Do: Chocolate Massage
My favorite thing to do was get a Choco Therapy massage at the Mansion de Chocolate, which is attached to the Choco Museo.
The massage is $34 and that price gives you access to the pool area. I made the mistake of swimming after the massage, which dried the chocolate oils off my skin. But I still left with my skin feeling soft and sweet.
MGA > JFK
It’s always sad to go home from a trip, but Nicaragua is one of those places that you regret not devoting more time to and I will definitely go back.