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Costa Rica’s neighbor to the north is loaded with adventure, relaxation and enough memorable experiences to send Nicaragua high up on your travel list. As the largest country in Central America, the land of lakes and volcanoes offers so much to explore that it’s impossible to see and do everything in a long weekend. While Somoto Canyon, Ometepe Island, San Juan del Sur and the Corn Islands are remarkable, they’re quite a trek for most visitors flying in and out of Managua. 

You may be short on time, but Nicaragua is never short on life-changing experiences. Here are five ways to make the most of a long weekend in this amazing destination.

1. Fall in Love with León

Right when you step off of the plane, leave Managua and head to León. This city full of artists and students provides a perfect introduction to Nicaragua. I suggest staying near The Cathedral of the Assumption of Mary. Search the streets for murals depicting the Sandinista National Liberation Front’s revolution in 1979 and venture to the top of the basilica for a rooftop view of León. Although street food is never a bad idea, travelers who are willing to walk a few kilometers away from the center of town will be welcomed with kindness and a delicious meal at Rancho don Pepe. 

Travel Tip 

León is perfectly positioned for quick half-day trips to awesome attractions. From the adrenaline-inducing “volcano boarding” down Cerro Negro to a peaceful swim at Asososca Lake, awe-inspiring wonders are within minutes of the city. I suggest jumping on a hike to the top of Telica with the tour company Volcano Day. Sit on the edge of this active volcano sipping a cold beer and admiring the surreal sunset over the smokey crater. 

 

2. Lounge in Las Peñitas
León is within a few kilometers of the Pacific, which means a beach day is effortless. Las Peñitas is only 30-minutes away, offering hours of sunbathing, surfing, fishing, and dozens of other outdoor activities. A popular beach for locals and tourists alike, be sure to swim safely as the rip currents in certain parts can be quite powerful.

León is within a few kilometers of the Pacific, which means a beach day is effortless. Las Peñitas is only 30-minutes away, offering hours of sunbathing, surfing, fishing, and dozens of other outdoor activities. A popular beach for locals and tourists alike, be sure to swim safely as the rip currents in certain parts can be quite powerful.

 

3. Explore Estelí

Get away from the hustle and bustle of León with a trip north to Estelí. Arrive early enough and you can explore the lush Miraflor Natural Reserve. Arrive a little later in the day? No worries! Esteli is an excellent place to kick back with a bottle of Flor de Caña and a cigar from a local plantation.

Travel Tip

Shuttles are convenient, quick, and comfortable … but you can find that at home! Instead, hop on the local transport known as a “chicken bus.” Though it does get a little cramped, this cheap and cozy option seats you alongside locals, offering hours of conversation and reflection.

 

4. Get Going to Granada 

Where León embraces its revolutionary past via the bullet holes and dramatic murals adorning their city walls, Granada showcases its colonial architecture with vibrant color. After touring the city, get lost in the greenery within the Mombacho Volcano Natural Reserve. Only a few kilometers outside of Granada, this dormant stratovolcano hasn’t erupted in over 500 years, fostering a tropical environment for hundreds of plant and animal species to call home.

Travel Tip
The cultural and colorful city of Granada will tempt you with its delicious street food options. Scour the city streets for the nation’s signature dish: the nacatamal. This traditional Nicaraguan take on the classic tamale is a boiled, meat-filled masterpiece wrapped in plantain leaves. Do yourself a favor and purchase one straight from the kitchen widow of a local Nicaraguan family’s home.

 

5. Make a Pitstop in Masaya
Tucked between Granada and Managua, the city of Masaya is where you’ll want to scoop up souvenirs. Visit the National Artisan Market to find handmade gifts like hammocks, ceramics, jewelry and other crafts. Pack up your goods and go to hell – literally! You can look straight down into Volcan Masaya, also known as “the Mouth of Hell,” at Masaya Volcano National Park. Plan a trip after sundown to bask in the demonic red glow of its fiery magma.

 

Travel Tip

If time is tight, Masaya is a fantastic place to stop when traveling between Granada and Managua, especially if you’re headed straight to the airport. 

No matter how you spend your first trip to Nicaragua, there’s one guarantee – you’ll want to return to this gorgeous gem of Central America ASAP!

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