Nicaragua backpacking tips (and why now is the best time to go)
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Nicaragua backpacking was the part of my Central America trip that I was most looking forward to. Luckily, it had been saved to the very end of my 2 years and 2 months in Latin America, and what a way to finish! The beauty of the landscapes and abundance of wildlife certainly lived up to the expectations planted in my head by so many other travellers I’d met who gushed over this stunning country. It says a lot that Nicaragua is the country in which Andy and I decided to end our 5 year relationship, but I still managed to travel on solo and have an amazing time.
I believe I caught a gem in visiting at the very best time to travel Nicaragua, which I’ll explain below. First though, I’ve compiled some Nicaragua backpacking tips for you to make the most out of your trip.
After these Nicaragua backpacking tips, you may also be interested in reading:
A lot of Nicaragua backpacking tips are transport-related, because honestly that’s where I came across the most aggro and had the best Spanish-testing arguments of my trip.
Following the near-complete shut down of tourism over the last 18 months due to political instability, I really did get the impression that there was a slight desperation to extract more money from tourists whenever possible to try and make back the lost earnings (who can blame them?!), but I hadn’t been to Nicaragua before the crisis so can’t comment on whether that’s always been a solid strategy of the tourism industry here. They are neighbours with Costa Rica, after all 😉
Really, this post doesn’t aim to be negative, but to make you aware of some of the difficulties I faced when Nicaragua backpacking so that you can have a smoother experience and come away loving the place. It’s a wonderful country – truly – and I hope it continues to recover from the challenges of the last few years. Don’t be scared to visit Nicaragua, it’s worth every penny spent to get there!
So, some Nicaragua backpacking tips for your trip:
1. Take a photocopy of your passport for border crossings
The charge for not having it at land crossings is only abut 50p, but it’s worth having just for the extra time and hassle of having to go to a different office to get a print.
2. Córdobas & USD are interchangeable
First things first – the Nicaraguan currency is pronounced COR-dobas, not cor-DOE-bas. You’d be best to use Córdobas for the sake of not losing out on FX rates when converting to a foreign currency, but you are perfectly able to use USD almost anywhere (though you may struggle on buses). Locals will usually quote to foreigners in USD, so have your sums pre-done in your head!
3. Nicaragua backpacking offers a bit of everything
There’s sooo much diversity, and a lot of it is still relatively untouched by tourism. If you have more than 2 weeks, I whole-heartedly recommend going north to see the canyons and coffee region, and then east to the beautiful Corn Islands, which are similar to Isla de Providencia in Caribbean beauty. Lots of people tend to stay on the regular Nicaragua backpacking route of León–Granada-San Juan del Sur, but there’s a lot more out there to soak up.
4. Bus prices are sometimes totally made up
Having travelled a few routes multiple times and checked with people who had taken the same bus literally a day before, sometimes you’ve just got to resign yourself to the fact that the bus assistants often make up their journey costs willy-nilly. All locals know how much it will be without a price ever having to be spoken out loud, so try and watch what they give the bus assistant and the change they receive.
When you get on the bus, with the assistant out of earshot, ask a fellow local passenger how much it should be. If you don’t speak Spanish, you’re at a huge disadvantage here as you can’t ask nor challenge anything when you see yourself being short-changed – check out the best places to learn Spanish in Latin America to wise up for your travels! If you can speak Spanish, I found that a light-hearted, jovial argument about such a criminal rip-off gave me more success than an angry one.
5. Put your big bags to the back of the bus
Following on from the above, bus assistants have an extra way to get money out of you – luggage! In a style reminiscent of RyanAir, bus assistants will offer to carry and strap your luggage to the top of the bus without telling you it carries an extra charge to do so – sometimes as much as double the cost of the journey itself.
To counter this, I tried to put my rucksack on the seat next to me, and was charged for an extra seat – this one I actually agree with as it takes away their earning potential. SO I then stuffed my rucksack into the overhead rack, and was told that that carried a fee, too.
The only way to not get charged for your luggage seems to be to sit it on your lap (not advisable for a long bus ride) or to try and nab a coveted space right at the back of the bus, which is where there is usually a row or two of seats taken out to make way for suitcases, spare tractor tyres, sacks of corn, etc. etc.
6. Granada and León are cat-calling hotspots
While there was almost no issue in most areas I visited in Nicaragua, Granada and some parts of León were T-E-R-R-I-B-L-E for cat-calling. We’re talking men sat next to their wives and mothers with a newborn baby on their laps smacking their lips and shouting offers at passing women, and even groups of 12-year-old school children trying to get grown women’s attention. It’s pretty uncomfortable at times, but lo and behold, disappears if you’re walking with just one man in your group.
… So it doesn’t always give an advantage to travel in larger groups (except environmentally, of course!). However, that’s still a great way to make friends on the road, so gather up a little group of you and get yourself on an adventure!
Taxi fares are also often a flat rate within a city, so ask your accommodation receptionist at check-in how much you should each be paying per journey.
When trying to find a bus stop, beware of taxi drivers trying to tell you that the last bus has gone, that the bus stop is miles away or that your route doesn’t exist anymore. It’s a popular trick to get tourists into an overpriced taxi. Confirm with a local passenger and make sure you’ve researched the journey beforehand.
9. There’s a lot that’s not featured on Booking.com
Now, I usually use Booking.com as the holy grail of all accommodation options, but there are some countries or areas in which local hostels and hotels don’t appear to think it’s worth advertising on there.
Nicaragua is such a country, and I often found more luck using Hostelworld to find a greater range of decent accommodation that wasn’t being shown on other sites. When looking for where to stay in Nicaragua, take the time to check both Booking.com and Hostelworld before committing to a reservation.
Accommodation was a little more expensive than I expected from such a relatively cheap country, but again, there’s that need within the tourism industry to make up for lost time.
10. The best time to travel Nicaragua is…
It’s generally said that the best time to travel Nicaragua is between December and April, which is warm and outside of the rainy months. However, I did much of my stint of Nicaragua backpacking in November, and that shoulder season was really lovely, with only a few rainy days here and there, mostly while I was on Ometepe. Granada and León were always HAWT so no need to worry about temperature there.
In fact, no, the best time to travel Nicaragua is NOW
Yes, I said this about Colombia too, but the reason this is the best time to go to Nicaragua is for different reasons. The 2018 riots and political instability really affected Nicaragua’s tourism industry, and even though it’s now PERFECTLY SAFE FOR TOURISTS, the reputation lingers.
For a few months, it’s all people heard of the country on the news – for some people, that was the first time they’d ever even heard of the country in their lives (yep, really) – and it’s not a story that people will forget in a hurry.
This means that Nicaragua in 2020 is in a state of recovery – not as empty of tourists as it was in early 2019, but not as rammed as it was at its peak in 2017. Establishments and tour companies are just beginning to reopen, though sometimes with reduced frequency, so it’s currently at a balance that allows for full enjoyment. BOOK YOUR FLIGHTS, GUYS, BOOK YOUR FLIGHTS.
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