Things to Do in Nicaragua
The Granada Cathedral rises above the city skyline in a vision of red domes and lemon-yellow walls backed by the towering Mombacho volcano. Well recognized for its beauty, the Spanish Renaissance cathedral—whose first stone was laid in 1523 and took 181 years to complete—is a quintessential image of Nicaragua and a popular Granada attraction.
Skip the hike and drive right up to the lava-spitting rim of Masaya Volcano (Volcan Masaya), perched between Managua and Granada. The active volcano’s famous lava shows at the Santiago Crater, combined with ridiculously easy access, have made it one of the most popular attractions in all of Nicaragua.
With an Aztec name that translates to “Steep Mountain,” the Mombacho volcano certainly lives up to its name. Its 4,410-foot (1,344-meter) peak towers over Nicaragua’s colonial city of Granada, creating both a beautiful backdrop and a huge backyard ripe for adventure and exploration.
The Old Cathedral of Managua (Catedral de Managua) is a spectacular ruin whose gilded neoclassical facade still stands but insides were devastated in a 1972 earthquake that shook Nicaragua. Though visitors are not allowed inside, the cathedral’s striking beauty and historical significance make a visit worthwhile.
A crystalline lagoon just a short drive from Granada, Apoyo Lagoon Natural Reserve (Reserva Natural Laguna de Apoyo) is one of the most popular natural attractions in Nicaragua. Get away from the city for a few hours of kid-approved water sports, or hang out and relax all day in a lounge chair poised on the rim of this beautiful crater lake.
Visiting the UNESCO World Heritage–listed ruins of León Viejo makes it easy to imagine life for the first Spanish settlers in Nicaragua. Located on the slopes of Momotombo volcano and preserved by volcanic ash, the ruins are some of the most complete Spanish colonial ruins in Central America—even though they’re also some of the oldest, dating back to 1524.
The largest church in Central America, the UNESCO World Heritage–listed León Cathedral is a must-see while in León, a charming colonial city in Nicaragua’s northwest corner. The cathedral combines a striking blend of architectural styles with religious import and pirate-riddled history, making for a church visit unlike any other.
Ever wanted to sandboard down the youngest volcano in Central America? Just head to Nicaragua’s Cerro Negro Volcano. Looming over the village of Malpaisillo and the surrounding jungle, Cerro Negro pierces the clouds and spurts ash from its black crater.
Part of the Central American Volcanic Arc, Cerro Negro is one of the most active volcanoes in the country. Hiking the stratovolcano is a tough but rewarding 1.5-hour hike that takes you a mile up to the crater. From the top, enjoy 360-degree views of Telica and San Cristobal volcanoes, and get ready for the ride down the 1,640-foot mountain.
To sandboard down the volcano, you’ll need to go with a tour group. Your guide will set you up with a specially-adapted sandboard that can take you down the steepest side of the crater at speeds of up to 60 km an hour. Don’t worry if you’d prefer to take the descent more slowly—you can control how quickly your board goes depending on how you balance, and of course, you can always walk down the volcano if sandboarding isn’t for you.
There are several churches in Granada to visit, but the Iglesia de la Merced, not far from Parque Central (Central Park), is noted by many as the city's most beautiful. The church on this site dates from the early 16th century, although it has been damaged twice (to the point of nearly-complete destruction once) and rebuilt, most recently in the 1860s.
If you’re looking for handmade jewelry while in Nicaragua, or locally made rocking chairs, hammocks, and traditional blouses, just head to the city of Masaya. Its famous Mercado Artesanías is housed in the old Gothic market building which dates back to the 19th century. As you stroll the market, look out for high-quality hemp weavings and handmade necklaces, as well as just about every other craft you can think of.
When in Masaya, it’s also popular to take a stroll along the pretty lakeside promenade, discovering the city’s historic plazas and 15th-century churches along the way. A couple of blocks away from Mercado Artesanías, try to visit Masaya’s huge central market too. Here, you’ll find sections ranging from butchers’ stalls to electronics stands.
Masaya is also known as the "Cradle of Folklore." Visit on a Thursday night for the lively Noche de Verbena (Night of Revelry), when traditional dances are performed in the streets. Also, be sure to look out for the fall fiesta of San Jerónimo, when street parties and folklore dances take over the historic center, turning the whole city into a carnival.
Shopped out and had enough dancing? Hike up to Masaya volcano’s smoking crater. The most active volcano in the region, discover Masaya’s lava tunnels, and check out the on-site Ecological Museum to learn more about its volcanic geology and history.
More Things to Do in Nicaragua
The Rubén Darío Museum (Museo Rubén Darío) is dedicated to the famous poet, writer, and ambassador who brought modernismo to Spanish literature. A must for poetry fans, this León museum is also a good choice for those curious about Nicaraguan history—the museum offers an intimate look at 19th-century upper-class life in Nicaragua.
Lake Nicaragua, Central America’s largest lake, is home to an archipelago of 365 islands. Formed by the eruption of Mombacho Volcano, the Islets of Granada include uninhabited isles, traditional fishing villages, private residences, and luxurious resorts. Explore as part of a “best of” Nicaragua or Granada tour, or with a private guide.
Nicaragua may not be known for its museums, but León’s Ortiz Gurdián Foundation Art Center holds its own. The center seamlessly blends a private collection of national and international art, from renowned Nicaraguan painter Armando Morales to world-famous artists like Rubens, Miró, Picasso, Chagall, Matisse, and Diego Rivera.
Combine a bit of nature, a sprinkle of history, and the best view of Managua on a trip to the Tiscapa Lagoon—a crater lake, park, and nature reserve right in Nicaragua’s capital. The area is perhaps best known for its massive Augusto Sandino statue, an iconic symbol of the city.
In a city infamous for a lacking cultural center, Managua’s National Palace of Culture stands as a testament to Nicaragua’s rich history. The complex houses the National Museum (Museo Nacional Dioclesiano Chávez), the National Archives, and the National Library (Biblioteca Nacional Rubén Darío) all under one stunning neoclassical roof.
A humble exterior conceals an elegant, velvet-swathed concert hall at the Rubén Darío National Theatre (Teatro Nacional Rubén Darío), Nicaragua’s premier exhibition space. The hall is a true homage to Managua’s cosmopolitan roots with Spanish chandeliers, American design inspiration, and the best of Latin American and other cultural performances.
Latin America is as well known for its rum production as it is for its rum consumption. A tour of the Flor de Caña Rum Factory offers travelers the perfect way to capitalize on both, with an informative guide who offers up details about the production process and a tasting room to sample some of this strong spirit.
Visitors will have the chance to tour the vault, where rum is slow aged, walk through the rum barrel operation area and relax during a video presentation that highlights every aspect of Flor de Caña’s unique process. The tour concludes with a chance to sip on the local product, as well as a stop in the gift shop, museum and rum bar (for those who’d like to drink a little more).
The San Francisco Convent is both an active Catholic church and a museum with historic photographs, culturally important paintings, and statues from the Zapatera Island archaeological site on Lake Nicaragua. With a history dating back to 1529, it's among the oldest churches in Nicaragua and remains one of Granada’s most memorable sights.
If you’re interested in cultural events while in Nicaragua’s Granada, make House of Three Worlds (Casa de los Tres Mundos) part of your itinerary. This non-profit arts and cultural center shows temporary collections by local and international artists, and the works on show are often for sale.
Located in a colonial mansion, Casa de los Tres Mundos hosts many performances each month, including poetry readings, films screenings, and dance performances by the likes of the local dance group, Nicarocalli. Entrance to performances is normally for a small fee, or completely free.
Founded in 1987 by Austrian author Dietmar Schönherr and Nicaraguan poet and politician, Ernesto Cardenal, Casa de los Tres Mundos also acts as a community center for Nicaraguans who are looking to get creative at the Casa’s theater school, art studio and music academy. Casa de los Tres Mundos also finances and develops rural development projects in the Malacatoya area. The foundation welcomes individuals or groups who can volunteer at the center.
From bougainvillea to orchids, dahlias and jasmine, the little town of Catarina overflows with flowers and herbs which tumble from the nurseries, gardens, and flower baskets dotted around town. On weekends especially, you’ll see daytrippers from Managua, Masaya and Granada come to smell the flowers and purchase some blossoms for their homes.
Home to more flowers than people, Catarina is also known for its skilled basket weavers and woodcarvers. You can buy locally-made crafts at the Villa de Artesanías, which you’ll see at the town entrance. Catarina is also home to lots of lively restaurants, and in November and December especially, there are many street fairs, like the festival of Santa Catalina.
Catarina is also known for its views of Laguna de Apoyo and the volcanoes and islands beyond. On the edge of the lake, Mirador de Catarina viewpoint is easy to find, and on a clear day you can see all the way out to the twin volcanic peaks of Ometepe. On sunny days, it’s also popular to head to the nearby beach on the lagoon.
Looking for ceramics while in Nicaragua? Head to the tiny village of San Juan de Oriente, where practically everyone is a potter. As you wander the village’s narrow streets, stopping at different workshops along the way, you’ll see all kinds of pottery, including handmade necklaces, vases, plates and ceramic animals based on Nicaraguan folklore. Founded in 1585, the pretty village was originally known as San Juan de los Platos (Saint John of the Plates), because village artisans used to create the plates that were used in local religious festivities.
Some of the artisans favor traditional pre-Columbian designs, while others work with modern geometric shapes reminiscent of M.C. Escher. It’s worth taking the time to visit each workshop, most of which are in the potters’ homes, because each family has its own distinct style that has been passed down from generation to generation.
Many of the pieces have only had a little help from the potter’s wheel, and the materials used to make the ceramics are as local as it gets: even the clay comes from the shores of Laguna de Apoyo. If you’re lucky, a local artisan may just show you how to bake clay and shape pottery yourself.
If you’re in town on the week of June 24, enjoy the town’s lively festival dedicated to local patron saint John the Baptist, which promises a party full of fireworks and traditional chilillo dance events.
A deep and narrow canyon formed by the powerful Rio Coco, Central America’s longest river, Somoto Canyon National Monument offers thrilling excursions for adrenaline junkies and scenic views of northern Nicaragua’s remote territory. The protected area covers 420 acres (170 hectares), including a 2-mile (3.2-kilometer) stretch of canyon.
On the forested flanks of Mombacho volcano, high above the cobbled streets of the colonial city of Granada, the family-run Hacienda El Progreso is where Nicaraguan coffee was born. This coffee plantation and ecotourism hot spot is best known as a lead supplier for Nicaragua’s biggest coffee chain, Café las Flores.
Stroll down Calle La Calzada after dark to see why this street is the heart of Granada’s nightlife: live music blasts from bars, outdoor tables overflow with revelers, and artisans hawk their wares. During the day, the street is a main thoroughfare with shopping and dining venues in Spanish colonial buildings—it’s impossible to miss.
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