When planning our next vacation, we knew we wanted to visit Central America (I loved Guatemala when I went), but we slowly realized that we wanted to visit EVERY country and couldn’t narrow it down. Belize? Panama? Honduras? We were having a tough time deciding which place to prioritize. After stumbling across some photos of some sick-ass tree houses in our research, we decided on Nicaragua now, others later. We’d heard Nicaragua was like Costa Rica years ago, and were curious to check out this infrequently visited country before it became too much of a tourist destination. We visited two places (Tola/Playa Gigante and Granada) with a brief stop in Managua. All are covered, here and you should go like, yesterday.
Best Western Managua: Most flights land in the evening, which causes you to decide whether to travel out of the capital during the slightly dicey evening hours, or park it for a night and pick up your adventure in the early morning. We chose the latter. There is a totally gigantic Best Western literally across the street from the airport with bungalow rooms, a huge pool, and all the Nicalibres you want (a Nicaraguan Cubalibre). Most travelers use this as their stop either into or out of Nicaragua, and locals hang and swim at night there. It was totally great, and had a rather killer breakfast included in the rate.
Aqua Wellness Resort: Everyone stays in San Juan del Sur. It’s a larger, bustling town that is apparently quite a surfer haven. Neither of us surfs so we decided to go a little more off the beaten path and stop in a lesser-known area right above it. Playa Gigante is roughly the name of the area, however we were in a private area called Playa la Redonda- a private cove with nothing but our hotel, Aqua Wellness Resort. By the time you read this, it could already be called a “Six Senses” (a very famous luxury hotel chain who I lusted over during our travels in Thailand and Vietnam). There are a variety of suites and tree houses and there will be twice as many by 2017 when the renovation is complete. Highly recommend you ask for the Espavel tree house, as it was phenomenal. It had ocean views and it’s own private, small plunge pool. Upon checking out, we were also told that the staff favorites were the Yucca tree house or the Kinkajou tree house.
Onda: Because you have to (that’s the only place to eat, right now). It’s the one and only restaurant with a waterfront platform or a space set slightly further back from the beach- both completely open air, apart from a roof. Highly recommend the crostini and their vegan items (sadly, the ceviche was forgettable). Also apparently we ate pizza one night that was good (I don’t remember and blame rum).
Get out of Managua: I heard there are some cool things to do there but we weren’t staying long enough to explore the capital. We requested a driver from our hotel -it felt unnecessarily fancy but was significantly less expensive to do this compared to renting a car. If you rent a car, get ready for some bumpy roads, but you will be driving on-road the whole way, not off-roading through the jungle. However if you get a driver from getting there – request Sergio. The drive is long and it helps having a nice, air-conditioned car with someone who can tell you about the trip. We passed oxes pulling carts, sugar cane fields, and had a run-in with some local corrupt cops who our driver had to pay off. It also helps to have someone driving you who is willing to stop at a local grocery store in Rivas for a beer and rum, run.
Relax- This place is slow and quiet. Bring a book and relax.
Yoga: Do yoga, levitating above the beach! It's free, held 2x daily and very informal. I did yoga for the first time here!
Paddleboard: They are free at the beach hut, along with kayaks, snorkels, whatever you like!
Explore Playa Gigante: Walk to Gigante for interactions with the locals, and back to back surfer hostels to grab a cheaper beer. It’s a 20 minute walk along a dirt road from the hotel. Would recommend sneakers (and not some fancy ass flats) and light clothing.
Deet yourself all day, e’ry day. We did not get bitten once, which is HIGHLY unusual for me.
The hotel will give you an option to add 10% gratuity at the end of your stay that is allegedly divided up by the staff there but does not include the restaurant. We chose option B- tip as you go. And tip in cash to ensure it gets to the waiters, beach attendants, bartenders, and maids who take such good care of you. Adding propina to your room charge is not the same as leaving a couple cordobas for them, specifically.
Tribal Hotel: You’ll thank me later. Only 7 rooms JUST far enough out of town to be quiet, but just close enough that you are in Parque Central after a 5 minute walk. We walked everywhere and this was our heavenly homebase. It’s impeccably decorated by Yvan (the owner) with items from Africa and local Nicaraguan goods. Everything there is a piece of art, from the mural when you walk into the lobby, to the tile in the small, courtyard pool. Marcelo and Byron are two dudes who work there and RULE. We will make this our basecamp every time we return to Nica. Room number 4 was the best, but they all looked darling. Every morning you get a 3 course breakfast and fresh coffee delivered to your private patio.
El Zauguan: One of the best steakhouses in the city and it really lived up to its expectations. Highly recommend the churrasco maya y filete moralimpia. YUM. We also got the sausage board. Do NOT go if you are a vegetarian. I mean, you’ll find something, but it’ll be boring. Sorry- but I side with Bourdain here. Vegetarians don’t have many options here.
Esspressionista: One of the best dinners we had, a little bit outside of town. We had mole and tagliatelle and it was fantastic.
Nectar: This is on the main drag (Calle la Calzada) which is quite touristy – think 3rd street promenade in Santa Monica- but is packed with bars and restaurants and people selling trinkets.
Chilitos: More of a bar, however it looked like they served food though we did not try it. In a cool area of town just off the main park, we ducked in for a cigar and beers on night.
Intuit Kayak: This is on the lake outside of town (we scootered here). Apparently it’s open 24 hours and during the day it’s sleepy with views of wild horses roaming the beach. At night, we heard it can be a rager with people watching the sun come up after a long night of partying. Hot tip- when leaving here after a couple Tonas (the local beer) don’t try to get back to town the way you came. This street allegedly turns into one-way and might result in you having an awkward talk with the local policia.
El Garaje: Recommended by many locals, this was one of our most memorable meals. Only open from 11ish- 5ish every day, it is in the home of a very nice Canadian couple. From what we could deduce, the husband works the front, his wife (?) works the back, cooking out of her kitchen. Apparently the two of them backpacked all around Central America exploring multiple countries and cities. Granada, Nicaragua was their favorite so they stayed. Originally from Toronto, they love Granada and have become part of everyday life there. They serve local cuisine mixed with some interesting additions- everything we ate was wonderful (e.g. cucumber gazpacho, spicy pork burritos, etc.).
Bearded Monkey: Totally weird hostel that we read about and wanted to check out. Mostly just a mediocre courtyard with some hammocks but it was fun people watching and beer was cheap AF. I imagine if you were backpacking this would be a fun/funny experience to sleep in a bunkroom with some other weary travelers (for like…a night….maybe).
Scooter: Rent a scooter and go explore. Recommend paying attention to many signs. Our second policia shake up of the trip happened here when we accidentally went the wrong way down a one-way street.
Horse and carriage: Sounds touristy, but a cool idea to do on one of your first days so you can see the whole city and determine where to go. You pick them up in Central Park (can’t miss them) and you’ll get a tour. Depending on who you get to drive your carriage, you may/may not understand them. Also, if you have issues with animals looking frail and/or hungry, maybe skip this.
Churches: They are everywhere and rather rad. Worth popping into a couple to check them out.