As the winter chill starts knocking on our doors, it’s time to start thinking about sunnier pastures to escape to. I myself will be hiding out all winter and spring in Bangkok as soon as December 1st hits, but if I weren’t doing that I’d be considering returning to one of my favorite vacation spots; a place that seems to top the list of every travel journalist’s “winter escapes”— Nicaragua.
If you like the idea of exploring a region of Central America but yoga retreats and expensive resorts aren’t your jam, then you’ll love Nicaragua. It’s perfect for an active, adventurous, and depending on how crazy you wanna get, thrill-seeking vacay. Granada specifically is a great jumping off point for access to volcanoes, crater lakes, cloud-forests, and surf towns in the South. But even if you’re not into volcano boarding, you can still have a relaxing, chill vacation for less than it would cost you in Nicaragua’s nearest neighbors.
Where to Stay
Rates are based on a one-night search for January 2018.
For solo-travellers & low key couples — Tribal Hotel Starting at $145/Night
The Tribal Hotel is an exercise in quality over quantity. It’s small, with its twelve rooms and a pool that is more suited for wading than swimming, but everything about it from the service to the food to the decor is well executed. We stayed here during our visit to Granada and spent countless nights drinking cocktails by the pool, which is beautiful at night. Their breakfast game is also 💯, I had some unreal banana pancakes accompanied with fresh papaya that I’m still thinking about. The staff is super friendly and will help you book any nearby excursions. The Tribal is also a great value in terms of location— walking distance to many of Granada’s restaurants and city center, but far enough away from the noise at night.
Tribal Hotel does have ground-floor units. However, when we visited in 2015 the road in front of the hotel was under construction, which could be an issue for wheelchair users.
For romantics — Hotel Dario Starting at $93/Night
Named after the Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío, this place is teeming with history. The hotel was originally a mansion built in 9014 and is listed as an official heritage site of the city. It’s also cute AF, conveniently located right next to Granada’s central park and main thoroughfare, has a beautiful courtyard which Instagram dreams were made of, and understated Spanish colonial style rooms with views of the volcano Mombacho. Included in your stay is breakfast at the hotel restaurant, which in addition to local fare also features dishes from Spain.
Hotel Dario has wheelchair accessible rooms & bathrooms.
For people who kinda-sorta-wanna-be away from other people — Isleta El Espino Starting at $125/Night
One of the coolest parts of Granada are its Islets (see more under ‘what to do’). Isleta El Espino is a small eco-lodge situated on one of these private islands. There’s only 5 rooms, my favorite of which is this charming bungalow. The entire lodge is off-the-grid and runs on solar power, and like many places in Granada daily breakfast is included. You’re probably wondering: okay but how do I get to this amazing island? Don’t worry, they’ve got a boat and your initial and final trips to/from the mainland are included with your stay. All other trips are $5 each way.
Re: accessibility, while there are ground floor units on the island, getting there via boat may be difficult for wheelchair users.
What To Do
Las Isletas de Granada
A group of 365 islands in Lake Nicaragua, right off the coast of Granada. The little islands were formed when the volcano Mombacho erupted thousands of years ago. Some of the islands are big enough for a single building while others may house a few. You can even stay on the islands, as we’ve pointed out above, or take a boat tour through them (there’s even a bar on one of the islands). You can book a tour online for around $20, although we just showed up at the dock and picked a boat for around the same or less.
Ometepe + Ojo De Agua
In the middle of Lake Nicaragua is the island of Ometepe, formed by two volcanoes: the dormant Maderas and active Concepción. The #1 thing to do in Ometepe is visit Ojo de Agua, a natural spring with crystal clear waters, fresh coconuts, and a rope swing. To actually get to this little slice of paradise you’ll have to take an hour long boat-ride across choppy waters to get to the nearest port. Other island activities include hiking around the volcanoes or renting a motorbike/ATV and exploring on your own! The entry fee is $2.
Laguna de Apoyo
If you follow Nicaragua’s volcanic chain on a map, you’ll find it interrupted by a circular lake. That is Laguna de Apoyo, which formed when over centuries of rain filled the crater of a Volcano that collapsed an estimated 23,000 years ago. The lake is about a 30 minute drive from Granada and for a small day-time resort fee (~$6) you can access the lake through one of the many resorts around the coast, which also let you rent equipment if you want to kayak or boat around the lake. The lake is very private, and quite empty when we visited on a weekday. As a bonus for winter travel there are some hot springs in the lake which keep the water warm year round.
San Juan Del Sur
Winter is a perfect time to learn how to surf in Nicaragua because the waves tend to be smaller and better suited for beginners. San Juan Del Sur is a surf town on Nicaragua’s pacific coast and about an hour car ride from Granada. The vibe here is younger, with more ex-pats. The main beaches for surfing nearby are Playa Maderas or Playa Hermosa, which you can get to real cheap by hopping on a shuttle from one of the hostels in town, Casa Oro. I also felt like there were better food options in SJDS. We stayed overnight at the Hotel Alcazar ($90/night).
Volcano Masaya or Cerro Negro
We visited Masaya, an hour's drive from Granada. The white smoke at the top was so thick I couldn’t see any lava (supposedly it’s easier to see at night) but the surrounding geology was still a sight to behold. Masaya is also called the “Mouth to Hell”. There’s a cross erected at the top by a Spanish priest in the 16th century, meant to exorcise the devil. Fair warning: the fumes at the top are strong and can make you dizzy. For those who want an even more thrill-seeking volcano visit, you can go on a tour to Cerro Negro (3 hours drive from Granada, around 2.5 from Managua) which coordinates volcano boarding.
Infrastructure — Power outages occur occasionally in Nicaragua. We didn’t experience any in Grenada but we did in San Juan Del Sur. People say “power outages are a way of life” in Nicaragua, so keep perspective. Hotels and restaurants will keep operating via generators or candles. Keep your phones constantly charged as much as possible in case of an outage. Outages typically last anywhere from 1-6 hours (2-3 for us). Keep this in mind if you have medical equipment that relies on electricity or refrigeration.
Nicaragua Fact! — Did you know that Nicaragua is one of two countries (now three including the U.S.) that declined to join the Paris Agreement? Nicaragua’s reason was that the agreement wasn’t aggressive enough in its commitment to climate change. The country already gets half of its energy from renewable sources with plans to get that number to 90% by 2020. However! As of last week Nicaragua has agreed to join the accord after all, citing that it is “the only instrument we have in the world that allows the unity of intentions and efforts to face up to climate change and natural disasters.” Reported by The New York Times.
Safety — There are people that think Nicaragua is still unsafe because of a Contra war that ended almost thirty years ago. Today, Nicaragua is a peaceful country and actually one of the safest in Central America, with a crime rate lower than many U.S. cities. Nonetheless, tourists need to exercise the same cautions that they would when visiting any foreign country: keep track of your belongings to avoid theft, and as much as it irritates me that I even have to write this, women should be vigilant (as we always are) with where we’re going and with whom.