San Juan del Sur on the western coast of Nicaragua in the country’s south is a very popular destination in Nicaragua for two reasons: drinking and surfing. It has a reputation as an epic party destination and is most well-known for it’s Sunday Funday weekly party. As such a popular tourist destination it is important to note, that the region is also catering for US tourists in terms of price!
We weren’t interested in drinking sessions, partying or surfing, but still made the trip out to the region and were happily rewarded for the effort.
Our stay at Playa Maderas
In our two days in the region we actually did very little, but the sun, sand and surf were wonderful for relaxing.
We walked from Selinas Maderas to Playa Maderas, and explored the length of the beach and around the rocky outcroppings through to Playa Majagual.
We spent some time lazing on the beach soaking up the sunshine and enjoying fresh juice.
If you are into surfing, you can rent surfboards and/or book a surf lessons at the beach.
Exploring the area
Our second day in the region, we hitched a ride to San Juan del Sur where we rented a motorbike for $20/day. We had the intention of popping in to various beaches along the coastline, but with limited riding experience and gravel roads, we ended up visiting Playa Hermosa and again relaxing in the sun with delicious food and drink.
The highlight at Playa Hermosa was watching a tub full of baby turtles that had been obtained from the turtle sanctuary La Flor. The baby turtles were released into the ocean at sunset and it was a truly wonderful experience. The turtles were absolutely adorable!
The only downside was the number of tourists picking them up to ‘help’ them into the ocean, rather than letting them find it for themselves.
At Playa Maderas The Jungle Dream is my number one recommendation for food. Their tacos are delicious, staff are friendly, it’s a super chill cafe and the prices are reasonable.
On the beach in front of Camping Matilda is a tiny beach hut run by a local family. The service was wonderful and welcoming. The food was very typical local food, and typical local price which was welcome as everything else was three or four times the price!
In San Juan del Sur we had breakfast at a cafe called Salud Kitchen and while it was certainly pricey, it was absolutely fantastic. The coffee was great, the avocado toast was delicious and the breakfast burrito was out of this world!
Not wanting to stay in San Juan del Sur, we found accommodation just near Playa Maderas at Selina’s Maderas. Selina’s is a chain of hostels found throughout Latin America, owned by “an Arab” (as stated by one of the employees).
The facilities at Selina’s were great, modern and clean and it was a good location. The staff, food and prices were less amazing. The staff weren’t friendly or helpful, the prices were upper end with no inclusions whatsoever and the restaurant menu was limited. When we did eat at the restaurant for exorbitant prices we were left hungry and disappointed. Your best bet is to shop at the grocery store in SJdS and cook for yourself.
We paid $16 per bed in an 8 bed dorm, and were grateful for the wonderfully hot showers.
Getting There and Away
You get to San Juan del Sur via Rivas. With a chicken bus the trip should cost only 30 Cordoba each way.
To get to Playa Maderas, you can be lucky enough to hitch a ride with someone, or pay for a shuttle ride at Casa del Oro for USD$5 return. To be honest, we bought return tickets and only ever used a one-way the rest of the trips we hitched or used our hired motorbike.
Isla Ometepe is a figure eight shaped island in the centre-western section of Lake Nicaragua, with a population of 47,000 people. The island was formed by the two volcanoes, Volcan Concepcion and Volcan Maderas, connected by an isthmus.
With such a high volume of volcanic, fertile soil, Isla Ometepe has a strong focus on agriculture, with plantations of beans, rice, corn and various fruits.
With two stunning volcanoes, one active and one not-active; various beaches; natural springs; waterfalls; and beautiful nature, Isla Ometepe is also a tourist hot-spot.
Our Stay at Isla Ometepe
The main goal of our visit to Isla Ometepe was to hike Volcan Concepcion. Many claim this to be Nicaragua’s hardest hike. In addition to hiking, we wanted to see more of what the island had to offer. We spent three nights on the island, allowing us two full days on the island, one spent hiking and one spent exploring.
Despite it not being a particular hub for tourism, we stayed in Moyogalpa. For people planning to hike Volcan Concepcion, this is the best place to stay. For those more interested in simply exploring the island, staying in Balgüe would be my recommendation.
We booked our tour up Concepcion through our accommodation, Hospedaje Soma. The tour needs a minimum number of people to run (from memory it is a minimum of 2-3) and the cost is calculated based on the number of people in the group. With a party of six people we paid USD$21 per person for the tour, plus USD$3 entry fee to the Volcan Concepcion nature reserve. No food or water is provided so you must pack and carry your own.
The full hike to the crater at 1610 metres takes 9-11 hours, and is a reasonably extreme incline, so be prepared for some hard work!
We were collected from our hostel by our guide Wilmore at 06:30 and driven the 10-20minutes to the base of the volcano. We registered and paid our entry fee, grabbed some walking poles and headed off up the mountain.
Our guide Wilmore was absolutely brilliant and absolutely the best guide we could hope for. He had a focus on safety, the environment and sharing knowledge about the area, it’s history, flora and fauna.
The hike is approximately 7.5 kilometres. The first 2.5 kms are reasonably flat terrain, the remaining 5 kms are a 25-30% incline. If we didn’t have walking poles we would have spent a great deal of time using our hands as well as our feet!
The lower section of the hike is through beautiful, dense, green jungle. We were lucky enough to see some white-headed capuchin monkeys and some families of howler monkeys. At the end tail end of the hike, we spent a half hour just watching the families moving about the trees.
From approximately 900 metres altitude the trail incline increases and the vegetation disappears. At some point the clear skies turned to cloud and we spent a large proportion of the hike walking through misty, wet clouds. Reaching the craters edge was exciting, not to mention a little scary as the high winds seriously affected our ability to stand upright. Despite the complete lack of visibility, it was incredibly exciting and rewarding to reach the crater’s edge at 1610metres. Quite the achievement!
Ride the Island
A great way to see the island is to rent a scooter, motorbike or ATV. We paid around USD$20 to rent a motorbike for the day. Due to leg pain from the hike, we had a late start and didn’t get to see much – but what we did see was fabulous!
Firstly it’s important to be aware that there are few sealed roads on the island. The road from Moyogalpa to Balgüe in an S shape (west then east across the isthmus) is sealed and easy enough to travel. Basically anywhere else you need to be prepared for slow, off-road travel. This being said, places I would have liked to have visited include Volcan Maderas’ crater lake and San Ramon waterfall.
One of the funniest things about riding around the island is crossing straight over an active, functional airstrip without any kind of warning signs. Hopefully they actually put security at the road crossing when plane landings are anticipated!!
Ojo de Agua
A site that we visited in our adventure around the island, was Ojo de Agua, Eye of Water. There are mixed reviews of the place, and I would have to say that I thought it was wonderful – but I will explain.
Ojo de Agua is essentially a man-made public swimming pool in the jungle that is fed by natural spring water. The fact that it is a natural spring is quite clear in what you read, but there are fewer references to the fact that the spring water feeds into a man-made constructions. So many people are disappointed with their experience.
Entry costs around USD$3 per person, there are change rooms, toilets, a restaurant and many sun lounge chairs on site. There’s also a banana plantation and trails through the agricultural area of the site.
The pool has deep and shallow sections, a tarzan swing and a slackline. After a seriously epic hike, I found it relaxing and rewarding to enjoy some time by the pool.
We had two fantastic meals out in Moyogalpa that are worth mentioning the restaurant Mar Dulce and the random, hard to find, local restaurant.
Reviewed as the best place to eat in Moyogalpa, Mar Dulce can be found on the main street in town. They have a decent range of food options covering both Italian, Mexican and Latin American dishes. We had a two person serve of mixed, chicken & beef, fajitas that were simply divine. The serving size was massive and we barely managed to finish it all.
The other restaurant that we ate at was a local restaurant with very typical Nicaraguan food at a great price. You can find it on Google Maps under the name Pollo Cervecero bar y comedor. The staff only speak Spanish, but are more than happy to help you as much as possible with their snippets of english. The food was fresh, delicious, a great price (222 Cordoba for 2 people including beers – USD$7) and a great location by the beach.
We enjoyed our breakfasts at our accommodation Hospedaje Soma, included in the room cost was a choice of four breakfast menus, all of which were delicious and hearty.
Wanting to stay in Moyogalpa and not in the centre of town limited the accommodation options, however we managed to find a place called Hospedaje Soma and made a booking via Facebook Messenger.
We splashed out on a private room with shared for three nights at USD$30 per night including breakfast. The facilities were modern and clean. The staff were absolutely wonderful, knowledgeable and helpful. They were ready to answer any and all questions we could think of, and were happy to arrange our tours and motorbike rental.
They were an easy 10 minute walk out of town and it was a very peaceful place to stay. I would highly recommend staying there if you plan to stay in Moyogalpa.
Getting There and Away
As mentioned in my post about Granada, Rivas is the central transport hub for getting around southern Nicaragua.
Granada to Moyogalpa, Isla Ometepe
We travelled to Isla Ometepe from Granada, which meant first taking a chicken bus from Granada to Rivas for 50 Cordoba per person.
From Rivas you need a taxi collectivo to San Jorge Ferry Terminal. a Taxi Collectivo is just a taxi that functions similarly to a bus, when there are enough people to fill the vehicle, they depart. It should be quite cheap per person, but we got screwed over into paying 450 Cordoba (USD$14) for two of us for a 10 minute taxi ride!
There are two ferry types travelling between San Jorge and Moyogalpa, one is a smaller passenger ferry and the other for cars and passengers. The larger one is a bit slower but more stable, and slightly more expensive. In terms of scheduling, the passenger ferries are more frequent, and the larger ferry will have a scheduled time but then wait until it is full before departing. The passenger ferry cost 45 Cordoba per person.
Check this site as a guideline for ferry times.
Moyogalpa, Isla Ometepe to San Juan del Sur
We took the Car ferry to return to San Jorge for around 50 Cordoba per person.
On arrival in San Jorge we ended up taking a Taxi Collectivo directly to San Juan del Sur (rather than going via Rivas) together with another couple. We paid USD$7.50 per couple for this trip.
Note: If you are going to get scammed for transport costs it is pretty likely to be in Rivas! Bus prices are fixed, but you need to watch out for taxi drivers. You will be told things like “you missed the last bus and will have to take a taxi”. Tips for avoiding being ripped off, ask locals what the price SHOULD be for a particular trip and try to team up with others heading the same way as you to get a bulk discount or collectivo price.
Granada is a wonderfully colourful old colonial city positioned on the shore of Lake Nicaragua, a popular destination on the tourist route and the second stop on our Nicaraguan adventure.
The city of Granada in the province of Granada, was founded in 1524 under Spanish rule. It is located at the northern end of Lake Nicaragua and is a central point between two active volcanos, Masaya and Mombacho.
Granada’s location for settlement was a strategic choice, with access to fresh water, waterways for trade, and fertile volcanic soil for agriculture. The well positioned, busy trading port became a target for pirates and plunder. Making for a rich history.
The city is quite large, with a population of over 100,000 but, as the city is sprawled over a large geographic area, it doesn’t feel at all crowded. Granada’s city centre is buzzing with life, and is a display of well maintained, spectacularly colourful, colonial architecture.
Granada tends to compete with Leon as the most popular city for tourists to visit in Nicaragua. I feel it’s truly personality and interests that affect which one you prefer. As someone with a preference for quaint and charm, Granada was certainly my preferred city.
Our stay at Granada
During our days in Granada we did a combination of tours and self-exploration.
Get lost in the streets
My first and foremost recommendation for Granada is to get lost. Wander the streets at random, say hi to all the friendly locals, appreciate the brightly coloured buildings, the fascinating and intricate door designs and taste some of the treats for sale by street vendors (I generally stick to the fresh fruit options).
Cathedrals and Churches
All the churches have different architecture and colouring, and they are fascinating to visit. They each cost $1 to enter.
The main cathedral has a wonderful ceiling painting and the view over the plaza from the tower is gorgeous! Iglesia La Merced also has a spectacular view, some people prefer it to the cathedrals view, but I thought they were both equally interesting.
The Mercado Municipal is the local market, you can buy anything and everything here: fruit, vegetables, fresh meat and fish, socks, underwear, shoes, brooms, bed linen, plastic buckets…the list goes on. It’s a really interesting place to explore, but be prepared for crowded, dark spaces.
There are some food stalls where you can buy a cheap, fresh, local meal. I was nervous ordering food when I did not know what I would get, but my local lunch was absolutely delicious! It was a server of grilled beef, served with a gallo pinto (rice and beans) and a salad for only a dollar or two.
Doña Elba Cigar Factor
North of the city centre, near Xalteva church is a tiny Cigar factory called Doña Elba. Their daily production is 300-350 cigars all hand rolled and pressed.
You can get a free (donation based) tour of this tiny factory and if you want you can learn to roll your own cigar for $7.
The staff at the cigar factory were lovely and despite not being smokers, nor having a particular interest in cigars, it was a very pleasant experience.
Las Isletas Tour
Thousands of years ago Mombacho Volcano erupted and threw rock and ash into Lake Nicaragua forming an archipelago of 365 islands. Most of the islands are vegetation and wildlife rich dur to the rich, fertile volcanic ground.
Many of the islands are inhabited or for sale, they are largely foreign owned due to the very high price tags. Two of the islands have monkeys, but they did not come to be there naturally and are simply to appease the tourists. Sadly they get fed Oreos and other things to bring them close to the tourist boats.
It was quite interesting to zip in and around the islands, to see the huge houses, and the variety of birdlife and vegetation, but it was disappointing to see the monkey so far from their natural habitat.
The Las Isletas tour cost $18 per person for a 3 hour tour. They run from 9-12 and again 2-5pm.
From Granada an evening tour to Masaya Volcano is quite common, you can also self tour but we booked a tour. Masaya Volcano is the smallest but most active of the active volcanoes in Nicaragua. It is 635 metres above sea level, and the lava level is currently up to 270 metres above sea level.
We had hoped to hike the lava tubes, but as they are at 250 metres above sea level, they were under the current lava level.
For the majority, the tour is spent in a van travelling, and we had a brief visit at a museum on the way up. The main event however, is a visit to the volcano crater after the sun has set. Vehicles are sent up in batches, after arriving at the car park you are given 15minutes to look around and take your photos and you must then get back in the van and leave. As the volcano is so active, the sulfur fumes are dangerous and also it’s ridiculously popular, the visit is very short.
Despite being a short visit I considered it worth the time and money. I thought it was truly a great experience to look down into an active volcano, and see the glowing red, fast-flowing river of lava below!
The Masaya Tour cost $20 per person and was around 3 hours in duration. It was operated by TransTours, but we booked through El Caite Hostel.
What I would do if I went back…
If I went back to the Granada region in Nicaragua I would take some extra time to do some hiking and ziplining at Mombacho Volcano; explore Chocoyero Nature Reserve to see El Brujo; and visit the craft markets at Masaya.
Two fantastic restaurants I can recommend in Granada, are more American cuisine and prices than Nicaraguan, but the food was absolutely delicious.
For great steak, my recommendation is El Zaguan. I enjoyed the surf and turf – steak with a full grilled lobster tail on top and it was absolutely amazing.
For fresh healthy, salads and wraps, as well as modern versions of local dishes, great coffee and smoothies, then The Garden Cafe is worth a visit. They also have a great little store and an amazing selection of books to read.
A local dish recommended to us was Vigaron, this can be purchased in the central park at the cafe/stall with the colourful umbrellas. Vigoron is a traditional dish served of Yucca, chicharron (pork crackling), pickled tomato, cabbage and something else green.
Through relatively random travel choices, we stayed at three different places in Granada. Two of which I would happily recommend, and the third I would strongly advise against.
El Caite is a hostel two blocks back from Parque Central. It was a fairly busy hostel but with a great location and good facilities. There was a really friendly vibe amongst guests. The only downside was that the staff didn’t speak much english and this leads to some issues with booking tours,.
At the end of our trip we had another two nights in Granada before flying out. We thought we would splash out on a private room, so we booked Hotel Casa Generalife but were most disappointed to find that our superior room with a garden view was simply a painted concrete room with no view, and the ensuite was only separated from the bedroom with a flimsy curtain. We promptly booked our second night at another hotel.
The night we spent at Hotel Glifoos was not in any way disappointing. The welcome was warm and helpful the hotel itself felt more homely, clean and modern. The facilities were better and it was a fantastic location. Only a block and a half from Parque Central but with no street noise.
Getting there and away
Granada – Laguna de Apoyo
Our first trip to Granada was from Laguna de Apoyo; we took a local shuttle from Paradiso hostel directly to Mercado Municipal in the centre of Granada for US$3 per person.
Granada – Rivas
If you wish to head south from Granada, to either Isla Ometepe or San Juan del Sur, you will need to go via Rivas. The local chicken bus departs from a stop three blocks south of Mercado Municipal and costs 50 Cordoba per person.
Note: the chicken buses always have their route name on the front of the bus so they are easy to identify.
Granada – Managua Airport
We travelled from Managua Airport by taxi to Mercado Roberto Huembes Bus station for 100 Cordoba per person.
From the bus station we took a chicken bus to central Granada for 21 cordoba per person.
Returning to Managua Airport for a 7am flight, we took a private shuttle for US$35 organised through the hotel. We were actually driven by the Hotel Glifoos Hotel Manager, David, who was a truly wonderful man.