The Central American country of Nicaragua is often compared to Costa Rica. They say Nicaragua is what its southerly neighbour was like before its big tourism boom. That said, visitor numbers to Nicaragua are rising with more and more people – and families – drawn by its natural beauty, its undeveloped beaches, its historic colonial cities and its safe reputation. Often referred to as the ‘Land of Lakes and Volcanoes’ this friendly country offers a wide range of adventures for families, surfers, history buffs and outdoor enthusiasts.
Based on a combination of personal experiences and months of research, here is our guide on where to go in Nicaragua with kids.
Nicaragua With Kids: Three Main Experiences
Nicaragua offers three main experiences for families to enjoy:
- Colonial Cities
- Lakes & Volcanoes
Colonial Cities: Granada & León
The colonial cities of Granada and León are the most visited towns in Nicaragua; Granada is positioned to the south of the capital Managua and León to the north. They were both founded in 1524 by the Spanish although there remains much debate – and competition – as to which was founded first. Sibling rivalry aside, they are the two oldest cities in Nicaragua and, it’s believed, in Central America.
Both are picture-perfect cities characterised by colourful colonial buildings and churches on every street corner. Cobbled streets, horse-drawn carriages and shady town squares make both these cities a joy to wander around. Of the two, Granada has a reputation for being more touristy and León for being more “intellectual” because it houses the country’s national university. We only had time to visit Granada on our trip and were surprised by the number of fun things to do with kids in and around the city. If we are lucky enough to return we’d love to visit Leon, and – if we pluck up enough courage – perhaps even surf down a volcano!
The Land of Lakes and Volcanoes
Often referred to as the land of Lakes & Volcanoes, much of the country’s tourism is based around these two natural phenomena.
A chain of volcanoes runs the length of the Pacific side of the country and estimates as to just how many volcanoes Nicaragua has range from 19 to 50! Although I don’t quite understand how there can be such a large discrepancy, I’m going to trust the Nicaragua Tourism Board who put the number at 24. As for active volcanoes, again the reports vary between 7 and 19! In any case, Nicaragua has a lot of volcanoes.
Similarly, Nicaragua boasts countless lakes, rivers and lagoons. Many of the lakes formed in the craters of ancient volcanoes and there are lots of family-friendly activities that you can enjoy on the water.
Volcano experiences include:
Ziplining at Mombacho Volcano
Just 20-minutes from Granada is Mombacho Volcano, home to four craters and three different hiking trails of varying difficulty; El Cafetal Trail, El Cráter Trail, and El Puma Trail. The Puma Trail can only be accessed with a guide. The other two trails can be enjoyed with or without a guide. Walking aside, the reason you should come here is to zipline through the cloud forest! Platforms link zip wires and along the way an expert guide explains the history and nature of the area. This was one of our best days out!
Cruising The Islets In Lake Nicaragua
When Mombacho Volcano erupted thousands of years ago it blew large chunks of its cone into Lake Nicaragua, creating hundreds of small islands, known today as Las Isletas. Positioned roughly 5km from Granada’s centre, these islets are easy to access and fun to explore, either by boat or kayak. Read more about this experience here.
Kayaking In The Crater Lake of Apoyo
Lake Apoyo was formed some 23,000 years ago after the volcano erupted, leaving a vast crater that, over time, filled with water. Sandwiched between Masaya Volcano and the old colonial town of Granada, this scenic lagoon is easy to access by car and is a wonderful place for families to spend the day. Read more about this experience here.
Peek Into An Active Volcano!
Located 30km west of Granada, the Masaya Volcano National Park covers 54 km2 and includes two volcanoes, Masaya and Nindirí, and five craters.Visitors to the park can peer over the edge at the Masaya Volcano and look into its smoking crater and can even visit the volcano at night! Read more about this experience here.
Admire The Twin Volcanoes At Ometepe
Isla Ometepe is an island in Lake Nicaragua made up of two volcanoes – Volcan Concepción and Volcan Maderas – connected by a lava bridge. The bigger one (Concepción) has one of the most symmetrical volcanic cones in the world and is officially still active. It’s last major eruption was in 1957 and it belched out some ash in 1999. One of its indigenous names is Choncotecihuatepe (‘Brother of the Moon’) because of its spectacular moonrises. Volcan Concepción is a UNESCO Biosphere Preserve and offers a range of adventures for intrepid families, including a 2km hike to San Ramon Waterfall; sea turtle nesting sites and treks to pre-Columbian petroglyphs. A lot of visitors trek to the top of the volcano but this 8-hour climb is extremely challenging and needless to say, not particularly child-friendly!
Volcan Maderas’ last erupted some 800 years ago and the volcano is now listed as dormant.
Getting there: There are ferries that depart from Granada but a much shorter and more frequent service runs from San Jorge which is 70 km south of Granada (approx 1 hour by car). From San Jorge, the crossing takes about 1 hour and ferries depart almost every hour. It’s advisable to arrive at least one hour prior to departure to reserve a spot on the ferry. The crossing can get a little rough so if you or the kids suffer from sea sickness, you might want to bring relevant medical supplies with you. You can also take your car across on this ferry.
Surfing Down A Volcano
Cerro Negro (Black Hill) is an active volcano outside of León and is a popular destination for volcano surfing. Visitors strap a wooden sled to their backs, hike up the 728m-high mountain for approximately one hour and then surf down, sometimes reaching 80 kilometres per hour. We didn’t try this and I would think that it’s an activity best suited for teens – or when your kids are old enough to go travelling by themselves! The ‘slope’ is primarily made up of small, coin-sized grains of volcanic rock and can leave a mark if you crash. Frankly, I think it looks terrifying!
The video above was made by Michael Graziano and the team at Global Degree who we met this summer in TBEX. Whilst their audience falls into a very different age bracket to ours (!), we love the concept of a ‘Global Degree‘ and hope our own kids end up with one (providing they are not obligated to surf down this volcano!)
Caribbean & Pacific Beaches
Nicaragua is blessed with beaches on both the Caribbean and Pacific coasts, some of which are exceptionally pretty. Many also remain undeveloped and a haven for families who want to get away from it all.
The Corn Islands (Caribbean)
Lying roughly 70km off the east coast of Nicaragua are the tropical Corn Islands. These two tiny dots on the map were once popular hideouts for pirates who navigated their ships through the entire Caribbean. Many believe that some of those pirate ships and their precious cargo lie buried beneath the clear blue waters surrounding the two islands. Maybe you’ll find treasure when you go snorkelling! Even if you don’t, the sea life here is dazzling, or so we are told. Regrettably, we didn’t get a chance to visit them but we met a family in Granada who did. They had children of similar ages and they had a fantastic experience there. They recommended Little Corn over Big Corn because it is less developed and with incredible snorkelling.
Access is best (and easiest) by plane to Big Corn and from here take a boat (20 minutes in a panga or 1.5 hours in a fishing boat) to Little Corn. It can get choppy, so do bring sea sickness tablets if you suffer! Apparently a larger ferry service between the two islands is due to launch soon.
Where to stay in the Corn Islands with Kids
The family we met stayed in, and highly recommended Little Corn Beach & Bungalow. Located on the beach, the bungalows are basic yet clean, comfortable and with various room configurations to suit families. They also said the food in the Turtle Bar Restaurant was simple, fresh and excellent.
San Juan del Sur and Popoyo (Pacific)
On the Pacific side there are a couple of beaches that are well suited to families. Many travel agents will steer parents and kids towards San Juan del Sur, home to big chain hotels with kids clubs and other family amenities. But some local families had warned us that San Juan is also a party beach town that has seen rapid development. It’s a popular spot with backpackers and cruise ships, and we didn’t fall into either category. Instead we headed to Popoyo, which is about an hour’s drive north of San Juan.
Popoyo is a small, rustic beachside town with excellent surfing and empty, pristine beaches. This is the place to come to really relax and enjoy both the Nicaraguan countryside and hospitality. At times, we were the only people on a vast strip of sand and felt like castaways!
Thanks to its unique off-shore winds, Popoyo is also one of the few places in the world where you can surf all day long and for 300 days of the year (the surf in September and October is not as good). Lessons are available for newbie surfers, too.
Nicaragua With Kids: Recommended Itineraries
We spent 8 nights and covered Granada (and its surrounds) and Popoyo Beach. Our itinerary was as follows:
Itinerary 1: Granada & Pacific (8 days)
More itinerary suggestions
Itinerary 2: Granada, Ometepe & Pacific (8 days)
Itinerary 3: Granada, Leon, Ometepe, Pacific & Caribbean (13+ days)
If you are self-driving, and heading to Popoyo from Granada, you may want to go via Rivas and then back track west through Tola (instead of turning west at the earlier junction in Paso Real de Ochomogo). Although this route will add half an hour to your journey the road connecting Paso Real de Ochomogo with Popoyo is not well serviced and can get blocked in parts by fallen trees. It also has a reputation of serving shady characters and our taxi driver, who we trusted implicitly and hired every day of our stay always avoided this road, even on his return trip without passengers. That said, other locals we talked to waved off these concerns, saying it was just poorly maintained and with a lot of pot holes.
Approximate transport costs:
We found that taxi quotes from Granada to the coast ranged from US$45-250 for this one-way, two-hour trip. For a decent car and drive, expect to pay around US$130 from the airport to the beach or US $80 from Granada to beach (either Popoyo or San Juan).
Watch our Video Series, Nicaragua with Kids
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