I am just over halfway through a Central American trip, after starting in Panama and working my way up to Mexico, a trip which I am completing in 5 months while working full-time online as a digital nomad.
While every country has been amazing (I am writing this from the absolutely stunning Antiqua, Guatemala) one country has stood out as an unexpected highlight.
I am talking about The Land of Lakes and Volcanoes itself, Nicaragua.
Being American, most of everything I had heard about Nicaragua before planning this trip was not positive, to say the least.
Let me wholeheartedly say that I am so glad I didn’t listen to the misguided warnings and that I was able to spend a month traversing my way across this stunning Central American gem.
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Nicaragua is certainly not the only country in Central America that remains a bit undiscovered, and there are many in this region that you should add to your travel plans this year.
Every day and every new place in Nicaragua was a pleasant surprise, but here are 8 things that really shocked me:
Let’s start with the one thing that comes to mind when you first hear about traveling in Nicaragua. Is it safe?
While some media coverage on the country and its leadership doesn’t paint the country in the best light, as a traveler there for a month, I never experienced anything that made me feel unsafe.
That being said, I wouldn’t walk around many places after dark, but I wouldn’t do this in most countries today. Some studies have shown that Nicaragua has a lower crime rate than its much more popular neighbor of Costa Rica (another country I never felt unsafe in).
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Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, and traveling from one location to the next, you will see this firsthand.
There is a lot of poverty here, although from what I saw, it was mostly in the countryside, and the cities did not seem to have too bad of a homeless problem.
Currently, Nicaragua has a level 3 travel advisory from the U.S. State Department, mostly due to limited healthcare availability and poor law enforcement issues.
As a traveler, if you stay in the main tourist areas such as San Juan Del Sur, Granada, Ometepe Island, Leon, and the Corn Islands, you should be fine, although I would absolutely carry health insurance with you.
The Nature and Wildlife
For a country that is known as the land of lakes and volcanoes, it sure has… well, a lot of them. One activity many do here is volcano boarding down the impressive Cerro Negro, easily reachable from Leon.
I opted for a more laid-back experience and headed to Laguna de Apoyo just outside Granada, where you can chill and swim all day in the volcanic lagoon and then take an easy hike up to the top of Masaya Volcano to see the sunset and the bubbling lava (one of the only places in the world you can see this!)
Nicaragua has about 7% of the world’s biodiversity, and you will see beautiful nature everywhere you turn. The birds, fish, mammals, reptiles, and everything in between will surprise you.
I experienced most of this on the amazing Ometepe Island, where I was awoken by howler monkeys, saw spiders bigger than my hand (in my shower, no less) and massive iguanas just chillin’ around the lawn.
Aside from these creatures, the sheer amount of colorful and fascinating birds I saw in Nicaragua really gave Costa Rica a run for its money.
On a walk in the little town of Moyogalpa one evening, I commented on all the paint stores that this small town had. To which my husband replied, “Have you seen the houses?!”
I had to laugh because, yes, of course there is a paint store on every corner, because every house in this country is painted some neon bright color, one after the next.
The whole city of Granada, for example, looks like it might have been painted to be an Instagram backdrop, but nope. They are just colorful here.
The colors of places like this in Central America are one thing I will definitely miss when this trip is done.
Let me get this out of the way right now; I am in no way a surfer. I am much more of a let’s grab a drink and watch the sunset kind of traveler.
That being said, I do appreciate a good beach town with a surfing vibe. The southern town of San Juan Del Sur is exactly that and makes an easy start for any trip through Nicaragua, as it’s just over the border from Costa Rica.
With a Jesus statue that will remind you of a mini Rio De Janeiro and more places to eat and drink than you could possibly get through, this beach town is one to stay a while and chill.
On the coast along the Pacific you will find other smaller towns, such as Playa Mardras and Playa El Coco, both nice options for a very quiet vibe. In the northern part of Nicaragua’s Pacific coast, you can find another popular beach town of Las Penitas.
Across the country, located about 50 miles into the Caribbean, you will find the idyllic Corn Islands, and while I couldn’t include them in this trip due to time, they are definitely on my radar for another visit.
The Ease Of Travel
Before this trip, I had a lot of reservations about traveling around Central America. I was unsure if it would be easy to navigate the transportation and how to reach all the (ever-growing) number of places I wanted to include.
However, the best thing about Central America is that getting from point A to point B can be as easy or as cheap as you make it.
Chicken busses connect the entire sub-continent more or less and oftentimes cost less than a cup of coffee.
Next up is shared shuttles, which I used 99% of the time, mostly due to time restraints and being old and cranky and not wanting to carry my (also ever-growing) backpack around.
Where any visitor will likely want to go in Nicaragua is well connected by transportation, and shuttle busses often cost less than $30 a person, with door-to-door drop-off.
It’s worth noting that private drivers can also be quite cheap here as well, and I used them a few times when I couldn’t make shuttle times due to work. The best tip is to get a card from one you like and keep using them.
One thing that really surprised me in Nicaragua (and in El Salvador as well) is the number of tourists it seems to receive. Now, there were tourists everywhere we went; yes, this country is not a secret anymore, and people do come here.
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However, what did surprise me was where these tourists were coming from. In my month of meeting people, I must have only come across four other American travelers. Many I met came from Australia, some from Germany and France, and a few Canadians.
It seems to me that Americans might still consider Nicaragua not interesting enough or too dangerous to visit.
Both of which couldn’t be further from the truth.
Also, with more and more flight options from the States, it couldn’t be easier to reach this fascinating destination.
Additionally, Nicaraguans could desperately use some more tourist dollars in their economy, and they deserve it.
One claim to fame of Nicaragua is that it gave the world one of the greatest names in Spanish literature, Ruben Dario. After spending his life as a diplomat, poet, and journalist, Daio is now a national hero.
If you want to see some beautiful preserved historic cities, Leon, Granada, and Ciudad Antigua were the first established by Spaniards after they reached the shores of Nicaragua.
Wander their historic centers and take in the architecture and culture; just remember to look both ways for the numerous horse and buggies that zip around these streets all hours of the day.
Going into this trip, I knew some counties in Central America would be cheaper than others. For example, I was prepared for Costa Rica and Panama to be more pricey than Nicaragua and El Salvador.
And yet, just how cheaply you could get by in Nicaragua still surprised me.
Now, some locations definitely cost more than others. For example, San Juan Del Sur didn’t seem all that cheap to me, especially when it came to accommodation.
However, it’s possible to find lodging on the otherworldly island of Ometepe for next to nothing, and Granada also has many cheap options available.
Aside from lodging, daily expenses such as transportation, sim cards, food and drinks all also cost less than I anticipated.
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This article originally appeared on TravelOffPath.com