If you’re the kind of traveler who’s interested in a truly unique Central American vacation, we have an idea for you: visit Nicaragua. Think about it–you already have your passport, and from Tamarindo the Nicaraguan border is only half as far as the Costa Rican capital of San Jose. Two and a half hours north of us, a whole new country is waiting for you to explore. It’s a country of lakes, volcanoes, farmland, busy towns, stunning beaches, and rich culture. In many ways Nicaragua is similar to Costa Rica, especially to Guanacaste which once belonged to Nicaragua but chose to annex to Costa Rica about 200 years ago.
How to do a two-country vacation? Fly into Liberia’s Daniel Oduber airport and spend the first part of your vacation in your Tamarindo vacation rental. Enjoy the exciting variety of things to do in Tamarindo and the unforgettable variety of Tamarindo restaurants and nightlife. We recommend you stay in Tamarindo for as long as you can while still leaving yourself at least a night or two to spend in Nicaragua. You could easily spend a week in each place if your vacation schedule allows.
You’ll want to take a taxi or a bus to the border. You won’t be able to drive a Costa Rican rental car into Nicaragua, so if you’ve got one, turn it in before you leave Tamarindo. Crossing the border from Costa into Nicaragua is a fascinating experience. You’ll arrive at Peñas Blancas (the Costa Rican side of the border), get your luggage, go through the line to have your passport stamped, and to pay some taxes and fees. There is a bank at the border where you can change American dollars or Costa Rican colones for Nicaraguan cordoba, or you can change cash with one of the many money changers that carry wads of bills around. If you choose to skip the bank line, be careful.
It is possible to get a reasonable (if not ideal) exchange rate instead of standing in line, but ask what rate you’re getting, use a calculator to figure it out, and count carefully the cordobas you are given. If you realize later that something is wrong, there won’t be anything you can do about it. Next, you’ll take a 2-3 minute walk down a shady road to the Nicaraguan side of the border crossing. Yes, you actually cross this border on foot. It’s pretty cool. On the Nicaraguan side, you’ll get another stamp in your passport, pay some more taxes and fees, and then you’re ready to explore! Get on a bus or take a taxi and watch Nicaragua unfold in front of you!
The town of Rivas is the first place of interest you will come to in Nicaragua. It’s a small colonial city about 40 minutes north of the border. Rivas is a great place to stop for lunch on your way to Ometepe, Granada, or Masaya, but Rivas itself is not exactly a tourist’s dream destination. It has plenty of history and if you’re going to Nicaragua for the straight-up cultural experience of everyday life in the country then Rivas is for you. If you’re looking for luxury, beauty and the kind of pampering you experience in Costa Rica–keep going.
If you turn off the main highway before you get to Rivas and head west to the coast, you will find a popular beach town called San Juan del Sur. San Juan del Sur is like a mini-Tamarindo of yesteryear. Lots of little shops, diverse cafes and restaurants, a wide range of hotels and hostels, a traditional market and local art/craft vendors are all gathered into a little hillside town by a gentle bay. If you only have one or two nights to spend in Nicaragua, this is the place for you. It’s easy to get to, easy to find things to do in, and a quick trip back to Costa Rica so you can make your flight. Walk the beach, take a tour to other nearby beaches, or get in on a surf trip to the famous break at Playa Matapalo. Shop the markets, go for a swim, and enjoy your favorite meal at sunset for a fraction of what you would pay in Costa Rica.
Probably the most amazing thing you can do in the southern sector of Nicaragua is to visit the island of Ometepe. Ometepe rises out of in Lake Nicaragua, and you will see it as you travel north from the border crossing into the country. You can’t miss Ometepe on a clear day because the two enormous volcanoes that formed it rise from the sea-sized lake that stretches for hours along the coast. To get to Ometepe, you’ll go to the town of San Jorge just a few minutes from Rivas, where you’ll take a ferry. The ferry will transport you and lots of other colorful passengers across the lake to the island. Ometepe is so big that you don’t even feel like you’re on an island. Of course then Lake Nicaragua is so big that it doesn’t feel like a lake! On Ometepe, one of the most unforgettable things you can do is to hike the volcanoes.
Sister volcanoes Concepción and Maderas, formed the island, and guides can take you for an unforgettable trip up either one. Concepción is an active volcano. You can hike up to lava rock fields near the cone where steam pours from fissures between the rocks. It’s not perhaps the safest pastime, but you can do it if you’re up for the adventure. Maderas is a dormant volcano (the safer sister!) and contains a cool lake in its crater. A hike up Volcan Maderas is considerably less dangerous and just as beautiful in different ways. Got time? Do both!
The other thing you need to do on the Island of Ometepe is get with a guide–hire one privately or take a tour–of Ometepe’s historical interest points. See one of Somoza’s coffee plantations, hike to petroglyphs in the mountains, travel to indigenous communities, visit thermal pools, and discover the rich history of Nicaragua’s turbulent past. You will never forget Ometepe. Guaranteed.
Further into Nicaragua lies the colonial town of Granada. You will drive along the shore of Lake Nicaragua for a full hour from Rivas before you are even near Granada. Granada is one of the oldest colonial cities in the Americas and it is also a rich source of indigenous historical sites and modern historical points of interest. Visit a colonial church, pre-Columbian statues, a fortress from the many wars Nicaragua suffered in the 20th century and hike a volcano that predates all of it. Tourism is Granada’s main source of income, and this is one of the places in Nicaragua where discerning travelers can be the most comfortable. Budget travelers will do fine anywhere in Nicaragua, but Granada is one of the places where high-end accommodations and services will be easier to find.
Our last recommendation for your quick trip to southern Nicaragua is the city of Masaya. Masaya is famous for two things–the volcanic national park it is named after, and its art/craft markets. Tours to the volcano are low-intensity (unlike Concepción and Maderas on the island of Ometepe) and can be enjoyed by everyone. This is Nicaragua’s first national park and is a great idea for a night-time activity when the glowing lava in the crater is a spectacular sight.
Before you leave Nicaragua, get your souvenir shopping on at one (or both!) of Masaya’s markets. There’s a municipal market and a tourist market. The tourist market it what it sounds like–a bright, clean market with comfortable aisles filled with crafts and souvenirs that are exactly what you want to bring home with you from your visit to Nicaragua. The municipal market is where the locals shop. There is also a souvenir section (cheaper, too!) in the municipal market, but talk about a cultural experience that will challenge your comfort zone! Baskets, fruits, vegetables, raw meats, raw fish, shoes, shirts, bags, backpacks, watches, socks, cleaning products, personal products, lunches, breakfasts, baby clothes, chickens, cosmetics… It’s all there jumbled together. The only thing you won’t find at the municipal market is personal space.
Our advice? Don’t miss it! You’re in Nicaragua after all! Make sure your bags are zipped shut and dive in. Do something you’ve never done before. Soon enough you’ll be back home in the chilly freezer section of your local grocery store where everything is much more under control but not nearly as interesting!
Are you interested in seeing Nicaragua? Contact us while your vacation is in the planning stages and let us give you some of our expert tips and advise on how to get the best of both countries!